Cowichan elder Louis Gabourie remembers building the old stone church, among other reminiscences. (Citizen file)

Cowichan elder Louis Gabourie remembers building the old stone church, among other reminiscences. (Citizen file)

T.W. Paterson column: Without newspapers we’d have hardly any history at all

“He was a big, dark man and you could hear him laugh from here to Duncan.”

“He was a big, dark man and you could hear him laugh from here to Duncan.” —Louis Gabourie’s childhood memory of Vancouver Island Governor “Jimmy” Douglas.

It’s great news for historians and researchers that Vancouver Island University is digitizing past issues of the Cowichan Leader and the Nanaimo Free Press.

At present available only on microfilm in archives and libraries, the value of these newspapers to the historical record is beyond measure. Without them, we would have little in the way of a window to our past. No amount of official records and statistics, and the relatively few recorded personal reminiscences, can even touch upon the wealth of information to be found in old newspapers.

They were society’s mirror without which historians would have pitifully little to work with. Their being made more easily accessible to the general public than is presently the case is to be welcomed with open arms.

To make my point, I’m going to give you a condensed version of an interview with Cowichan elder Louis Gabourie that appeared in the Leader in 1935. He tells of how, as a teenager in 1870, he’d helped to construct our oldest and most historically significant landmark, the Old Stone (a.k.a. Butter) Church. In a few short paragraphs he tells us more about the construction techniques involved and the personality of Father Rondeault, its builder, than we’ll ever find in any “official” record.

In 1935 Louis Gabourie was 82 years old and crippled from injuries sustained as a young man while helping to construct the Whittome Building. But his memory was obviously sharp as he spoke of being born in Victoria in 1853 when it was still a Hudson’s Bay Co. fort, before the Fraser River gold rush upended everything five years later.

His father, a French Canadian who’d hiked to B.C. over the Rockies in 1847 as an HBCo. employee, moved his family (ultimately 14 children) to Cowichan when he was a young boy. But Louis made several visits to Victoria, by then a growing city, and vividly remembered Gov. Sir James Douglas whom Louis referred to as Jimmy for his easygoing manner (when not in his office) and his loud laugh. (In virtually every other source Douglas comes across as stern, even forbidding; Louis Gabourie’s observation of him as being friendly, with a sense of humour, is unique.)

Here then, edited for brevity, is Louis Gabourie’s exclusive interview in the Leader:

Seated beside the stove in the living room, Louis was persuaded to carry his memory back to the very early years of Victoria, for the Hudson’s Bay fort was then standing in the capital city, where he was born. He remembers it quite well for he lived with his mother and father in Victoria until he was eight or nine years old…

“I was born in Victoria in 1853 and Chief Tzouhalem was killed in the fall of the following year,” he said. “And the old fort was standing in Victoria when I first remember it, with a bastion and a gallery all around it, and the guards would holler every hour: ‘All’s well.’ The Indians would come there, some of them from far away, and they would only be let in one at a time with their pelts. A gun would be stood up and the furs would be piled up, sometimes to the muzzle, and they would be paid by the height up the gun the furs reached.”

And here the talk turned upon the building of the Old Stone Church, which is so beautifully throned on rising ground looking out to sea, and overlooking, also, the obelisk and tomb of that notable Indian, Chief Tzalpaymoult…who in company with Chief Joe Capilano, of the Capilano Indians, West Vancouver, and an Interior chief, visited King Edward at Buckingham Palace in 1905.

Louis was 17 years old when the work was undertaken. “All I did was to haul sand and water for the mortar on a sled, with horses, from the river up to the site,” says Louis, “but I suppose that can be said to be part of helping in the building. Then, at 4 o’clock, I would fetch the cow and milk her for use at the convent.

“They were able to get all the rock right on the spot, and Chief Joe, who was a very powerful man, used to take a big cannon bullet [sic] and smash the rocks up. The church was built entirely by seven men. There was Father Rondeault and an English stonemason, Mr. Williams, from Victoria — yes, they did all the building — and myself, and four Indians who got the rocks ready and made the mortar. Mr. Williams had his wife there and I think he was paid $500 for his work…

“Father Rondeault often did not trouble with how he looked. Once we were making hay when a well-dressed young fellow came up. The father was in an open shirt and dungarees and an old straw hat, and this young man said, “Can I see Father Rondeault?” and the father said, “Yes, I will take you to him,” and they went to the convent, and I went with them, and then the father said, “Now sit down,” and he sat down, too. ‘And where is the Father?’ said the young man. ‘You are talking to him,’ said Father Rondeault, and we all laughed a lot.”

Louis had much more to say. Perhaps the most interesting further reminiscence had reference to an incident which nearly brought about a war between the Quamichans and the Comiakens. The incident Louis did not remember clearly, but his father had told him about it, evidently with graphic detail. In essence, this is what happened:

When Father Rondeault first came to Tzouhalem and married Indians [sic] he found that many of them had two wives. He told them they must have only one. There were two Indians concerned in this incident, Jules — he had been given a French name — a son of Chief Modeste, of the Comiakens, and a Quamichan. There was some difficulty about the second wife and Jules was dissatisfied with the arrangement made by Father Rondeault.

The Quamichan Indian was a member of the church and went to ring the bell to call the Indian boys to prayer. One day, when he was doing this, Jules grabbed the bell and hit the bellringer over the head with it and cut him very badly. Then he fled to the Comiakens.

The Quamichan’s father pursued him and shot him, though he was not seriously wounded. Both fathers were in a state of great excitement and there appeared every likelihood of a general fight between them.

But Bishop Demers, who was in the neighbourhood at the time, managed — though with great difficulty — to pacify the tribes and to bring them together for a ceremony which he had planned. He persuaded the fathers of the two Indians concerned in the affray to each bring 25 blankets, and assembled the large number of Indians of both tribes near the Old Stone Church. Then he had the blankets piled in the middle of the circle, standing beside them himself. He called upon the two Indians and their two fathers to come also into the middle of the circle.

The Bishop then got the two fathers and their sons to shake hands. After which the blankets were distributed among the braves of each tribe equally. And so a tribal war was prevented….

So it was said in the Leader. Louis Gabourie passed away 14 months later after becoming ill while picking berries in Washington. He left a son and daughter and his funeral was well attended.

This interview, and the Leader’s report of a talk he’d given to the Cowichan Historical Society in 1930, in which he described the Royal Navy using Mount Tzouhalem for firing practice — hence the availability of a cannon ball to break stone for the Butter Church — tell us as much as we’ll ever know about this fascinating man and the history that he both witnessed and shared in making.

All thanks to the Cowichan Leader which, each Thursday, recorded life, large and small, in the Cowichan Valley for its readers and, ultimately, for posterity, for more than a century.

Old style journalism has its faults — journalistic standards have changed significantly in recent years to reflect society’s increased sensitivity to concepts of ethnicity, race and gender, among others.

But, warts and all, newspapers are without equal as a record of their times. It’s this very quality that continues to make newspapers a community asset beyond calculation.