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The Letters of Margaret Butcher: Missionary-Imperialism on the North Pacific Coast

By Mary-Ellen Kelm

Review By Jacqueline Gresko

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 155 Autumn 2007  | p. 152-4

As a study of missionary imperialism, Mary-Ellen Kelm’s edition of the letters Margaret Butcher wrote from Kitamaat between 1916 and 1919 makes an important contribution to historical conversations about the Haisla, missionaries, and residential schools in British Columbia. Kelm introduces Margaret Butcher as a forty-six-year-old Englishwoman, a nurse, who came to British Columbia to join her married sister in 1914. Butcher’s temporary work with the Methodist mission to Japanese immigrants at Steveston helped her obtain a paid post as nurse and teacher at the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home in the Haisla community of Kitamaat. The Haisla, like their neighbours the Tsimshian, had survived the challenges brought by settlers, industrialists, epidemic diseases, missionaries, and Indian agents. By 1916, when Margaret Butcher arrived, the Haisla “retained much of their social structure.” Her letters, intended for family and friends, “serve as a remarkable ethnographic record” of the Haisla (xxvi-xxvii).

Although Christianity had been brought to Kitamaat by Native converts in the 1870s, Canadian Methodists dominated the mission effort in the next decades. The men got the credit for establishing the church, boarding home, and day school. The government paid the salary of the day schoolteacher who taught the younger children. The Canadian Woman’s Missionary Society funded the construction of the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home and selected and paid its women teachers and nurses. The home served as a domestic education centre for the dozen older girls and as a dormitory for all three dozen pupils. The absence of a resident minister at Kitamaat meant that the women workers took Sunday services, did parish work for the Haisla and nearby settlers, and tended to building maintenance. Isolation, hard labour, and depression led to high turnover rates among the women mission workers. They “keenly felt” the deaths of Haisla students from tuberculosis, and the community-wide deaths from Spanish influenza added to their distress. Butcher, who had spoken of making a career of mission work, turned down a promotion from sewing teacher to matron of the home. She had “lost hope” (xxix), leaving Kitamaat and the missions once her term was done.

In a historiographical conclusion, Kelm sets Margaret Butcher’s letters within the frame of missionary imperialism. She discusses their “accounting of residential school life” and their presentation of “the ways in which people – Haisla, settlers, missionaries and government agents – were racialized” (218). Kelm contends that, although criticisms of residential schools and their assimilative goals, harsh discipline, poor health conditions, and racist staff were applicable to the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home during Margaret Butcher’s 1916– 19 term, her letters “paint a complex picture of residential school life” (217). “The distinction between the world of the mission, the world of the settlers and the world of the Haisla was not always clear. The children moved back and forth between the village and the school,” and so did the mission workers (243). When Haisla parents returned to the village from seasonal jobs, they arranged with the matron to take their children home. When missionaries and their pupils attended Christian Haisla weddings and funerals, they witnessed festivities that incorporated elements of the potlatch, which the missionaries had campaigned to outlaw.

Kelm argues that Margaret Butcher’s letters have value not only as ethnography but also as works that provide insight into how residential schools developed as assimilative institutions; that is, into how the process of racialization unfolded and how Butcher’s gender, class, and English background contributed to it. I would argue that the conversation Kelm has begun in The Letters of Margaret Butcher should be continued. Her book should be compared with other missionary ethnographies, such as Jan Hare and Jean Barman’s Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast. Such analysis would indicate how the orphanage/refuge model influenced Canadian women working in residential schools in British Columbia, as it did their sisters who were serving in immigrant missions in Toronto or Montreal – and as it did European women who were working to “make empire respectable” in Asian and Indian institutions whose purpose was “to prevent ‘neglect and degeneracy’” and to create “patriotic loyalty” to European culture.