A-G Morice’s writings, and Métis languages in BC
In the publications of Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice (1859-1939), you can turn up some quite neat information on languages of the historical Métis population of British Columbia.
“Father Morice’s cabin in which he printed the Carrier Prayer Books and newspapers.” (Image credit: BCBookLook)
Most of his personal experience of interior BC was in the 1880s and 1890s, late in the frontier period.
Here’s a collection of passages from Morice’s publications that educate us about the historical presence of Métis and their languages in BC.
“Fifty Years in Western Canada: Being the Abridged Memoirs of Rev. A.G. Morice, O.M.I.” (1930)…
…is quite the autobiography, written in the third person by its subject, and chock-full of praise for himself. It also includes lots of eyewitness details of frontier life in central to northern British Columbia.
Plenty of mention is made of the “Babine” tribes, nowadays better known by their own name, Witsuwit’en. “Babine” is Métis / Canadian French, cf. the Southern (Heritage) Michif language’s word (Fleury 2013) < babinn > ‘lip’, Can Fr babine.
Among the book’s other signs of the widespread use of “French of the Mountains” / Country French / Métis lingua franca in BC are these:
On page 46 (“72”), we learn that “broken French or English” was used by the recently arrived Morice in order to learn words of the Native language.
Pages 81-82 (“111”) tell us that French expressions, many of them coarse, were used by everyone (“English as well as French or Indians”) in the north, in handling sled dogs: “Marche! Marche! … Oh, le Crapaud! Marche, Chocolat! Saloperie! Marche donc! Oh! le Cochon!” (‘Walk! Walk! … Oh, the Toad! Walk, Chocolate! Bastard! Walk! Oh! the Pig!’)
Another of Morice’s books is…
“The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia(Formerly New Caledonia) [1660 to 1880]” (1905)
The well-known historical trapper known in BC French as Tête Jaune is discussed on p. 158, which tells us he was an Iroquois with yellow hair.
On p. 166 we’re told of a Canadian, Mr. Roussain, who was in charge of Fort Babine in 1831, who wrote records in poorly spelled French. A footnote adds that “all the Hudson’s Bay Company officers of that time were as much familiar with French as with English”.
We learn on p. 179 of half-breed and Canadian engagés being hired in 1836 by a written contract in French, and sent from Norway House to BC. These folks, we hear from all sources, were usually illiterate, and I want to add that they spoke vastly different kinds of French from anything that would’ve been written in a contract!
Page 253 tells about the “poor French Cree half-breed” [from Red River!] J-B Waccan Boucher, who “was the first white man — even half-breeds are whites to the natives — to take a Carrier girl to wife” in BC.
We hear on page 260 of Alexis Bélanger, also a Cree French half-breed and married to a Native woman, who was posted to Fort Babine and gained skills in the Indigenous language, being paid as “interpreter” there.
Page 279 reports how chief trader Paul Fraser at Kamloops beat a “French Canadian” Falardeau to death. That family name remained prominent in the Kamloops Métis community well into the 1890s, as the Kamloops Wawa newspaper shows us.
Interesting information comes on page 284 about the origin of the Carrier surname Prince, which is from “the French Canadian and other [fur-trade] employees” describing his chief-like demeanor.
Page 15: Loucheux is French-Canadian voyageurs’ name for the Gwich’in (“Kutchin”) tribes of the Yukon and adjacent areas.
P. 30 Porteurs is also a French-Canadian name, for the Dakelh a.k.a. “Carriers”.
Page 54 gives some history on the origin of the “Half-breeds” (Métis Nation), arguing that they were well-established and recognized by Native tribes by circa 1775. This agrees with all of my other reading about the history of the Red River country.
Pages 58-59: After pointing out that Canadians were known as “French”, Morice tells us of their importance in the fur trade: “Knowing the preference of the Indians for the French, the Northwest Company made it a point to be represented on the plains by as many individuals of that nationality as possible. In fact, practically all its employees, foremen, voyageurs, guides and interpreters were French, and therefore Catholics, while many of its clerks belonged to the same race and denomination.” [Footnote:] “Whom they loved best, though they feared the English most, according to St. Pierre.”
Page 59 — “So it came to pass that French [see footnote] was, for over fifty years, the official and universally spoken language in the Canadian West outside of the Hudson’s Bay Company factories. Even the Scotch gentlemen at the head of the principal posts had to know that language, and the ease with which they interspersed their correspondence, when in their own mother tongue, with French idioms and sometimes full sentences is good evidence that they had indeed mastered it.”
Page 72: At the start of the 1800’s, the “French Canadians and their grown-up children”, plus the freemen or coureurs de bois from Lower Canada, and their families, numbered around 700 in the valleys of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. This was the Métis community in existence before the foundation of the Red River Colony.
Page 93 has an appearance by Pierre-Chrysologue Pambrun at Red River; he is also known from his later PNW fur trade work.
Page 104: the Native wives had an imperfect grasp of French (this is comparable with the Native wives in Métis families at French Prairie, Oregon).
Page 210: On Red River Métis social structure — “From a social standpoint, Assiniboia was divided into two very distinct classes: that of the agriculturists, who were mostly English-speaking and generally Protestants, and that of the hunters and trappers, French Canadians almost to a man. The latter were either retired employees of one of the two original fur trading companies or their children, though not a few had also come directly from Lower Canada. Trapping, travelling and chasing buffalo had for them charms much superior to the cultivation of the few acres they had fenced in by their modest homes on the banks of the Red or the Assiniboine.”
“Du lac Stuart a l’ocean Pacifique” (1904)
page 24 —
Immediatement au Nord-Ouest du lac Francais se trouve une montagne a sommet denude que porte la carte du Dr Dawson. Or, il me semble entendre ce bon monsieur demander en chinouk a son guide aussitot qu’ils se trouverent en vue de la dite montagne:
— Ikta maïka wawa okouk (Comment appelles-tu cela)?
Ce a quoi l’Indien aura repondu: Tzoelh. (C’est une montagne.)
(Immediately northwest of Lac Français is a bare-topped mountain shown on Dr. Dawson’s map. Now, I seem to hear this good gentleman asking his guide in Chinook as soon as they came within sight of the said mountain:
— Ikta maïka wawa okouk (What do you call that?)
To which the Indian must have answered [in Dakelh]: Tzoelh. (It’s a mountain.) )
Pages 25-26 get into the somewhat complicated story behind the current place name, Lake Francois, BC. It involves francophone fur-trade employees.
Page 45 — a Dakelh syllabics letter written with charcoal on a tree! I mention this because it was also customary for Chinuk Pipa (BC Chinook Jargon writing) messages to be written on blazed trees along a trail in the same era:
29 septembre. — Force de rames aujourd’hui ; nous voulons
aller loin. Remontant la rivière Dawson, nous allons compléter
l’exploration commencée il y a quatre ans. Avant d’entrer dans
le lac de ce nom, prenons connaissance de cette inscription qui
s’étale, tout près de l’eau, sur l’aubier d’un pin. Ce sont des ca-
ractères syllabiques tracés au charbon :ne serait-ce point une
lettre à notre adresse? Voyons.
« Pour les gens de Natléh.
« Voilà que les Américains que je conduis veulent me man-
ger. Au cas que vous ne me revoyez plus, sachez que ce sont
ces Blancs qui m’ont mangé. Ce sont de vilaines gens.
« Daniel sa parole. »
Et tout mon équipage d’éclater de rire aux dépens de mon
Daniel, dit Paspo, pauvre hère du Fond du Lac qui n’a pas in-
venté la poudre et qui n’a jamais passé pour un foudre de
guerre. Mes compagnons me rappellent alors qu’il pilotait l’an-
née dernière trois Américains en quête du précieux métal. Ils
franchirent, parait-il, le lac Dawson dans toute sa longueur, et,
au lieu de l’or qu’ils cherchaient, ils trouvèrent la faim à la-
quelle ils ne s’attendaient point. Leurs vivres s’étant épuisés,
ils auraient menacé, dit-on, d’essayer leurs dents sur le lard de
notre Paspo, auquel, naturellement, la proposition ne souriait
guère. D’où l’avis au public que nous avons sous les yeux.
(September 29. — By oar power today; we want to go far. Traveling up the Dawson River, we will complete exploration started four years ago. Before entering the lake of this name, let us take note of this inscription which spreads out, very close to the water, on the sapwood of a pine. These are syllabic characters traced in charcoal: mustn’t this be a letter to our address? Let’s see.
“For the people of Natléh.
“Now the Americans I drive want to eat me. In case you don’t see me again, know that these are those white people who ate me. They are bad people.
“Daniel his word. »
And all my crew burst out laughing at the expense of my Daniel, known as Paspo, poor wretch from Fond du Lac who didn’t invent gunpowder and who has never passed for a thunderbolt of war. My companions remind me of when he was piloting last year three Americans in search of the precious metal. They crossed, it seems, Lake Dawson in all its length, and, instead of the gold they sought, they found hunger which they did not expect at all. Their provisions having run out, they would have threatened, it is said, to try their teeth on the bacon of our Paspo, to whom, naturally, the proposal was hardly a smiling one. Hence the notice to the public that we have before us.)
Page 49: another such tree message in syllablics:
Or voici que, sur une île à l’extrémité du lac Plat, un sapin
récemment dépouillé de son écorce frappe notre attention.
Nous dirigeant de son côté, nous nous assurons de ce que nous
avions déjà deviné à distance. C’est réellement une lettre à
notre adresse écrite au charbon, toujours en caractères syllabi-
ques. En voici la traduction :
« 3 octobre 1899.
« Pour le P. Morice et ses compagnons.
« Si vous êtes encore en vie, pressez-vous. Nous ne pouvons
attendre plus longtemps, vu que nous sommes menacés de la
famine. Nous allons tous les deux retourner ce soir au débar-
cadère et nous nous en irons demain. Impossible de faire
« Un grand bonjour au P. Morice.
« Allen sa parole. »
C’était hier le 7 octobre, c’est-à-dire que si Allen et ses
compagnons ont tenu parole, il y a déjà trois jours qu’ils
ont repris le chemin du lac Fraser. Et les chevaux? Resteront-
ils près du lac sans gardiens ? Et sans chevaux, qu’allons-nous
faire avec nos bagages? La seule peau de l’ours pèse au moins
quinze livres 1 (6 kilos). Mus par l’inquiétude née de ces ré-
flexions peu rassurantes, nous oublions nos ïatigues et filons
(But now, on an island at the end of Lac Plat, a fir tree
recently stripped of its bark strikes our attention.
Leading us from its side, we become sure of what we
had already guessed from a distance. It’s really a letter to
our address written in charcoal, always in syllabic characters.
Here is the translation:
“October 3, 1899.
“For Fr. Morice and his companions.
“If you’re still alive, hurry up. We can not
wait any longer, as we are threatened with
famine. We’re both going to go back to the landing tonight-
frame and we’ll leave tomorrow. Can’t do
“A big hello to Fr. Morice.
“Allen his word. »
It was yesterday October 7th, that is to say that if Allen and his
companions have kept their word, it has already been three days since they
headed back to Lake Fraser. And the horses? Will they stay near the lake without guards? And without horses, what are we going to
to do with our luggage? The bear’s skin alone weighs at least
fifteen pounds (6 kilograms). Moved by the concern born of these unreassuring reflections, we forget our fatigue and get a good move on.)
“The Use and Abuse of Philology” (1899)
Page 87 — North American tribal languages’ words for ‘hog’ … Surprisingly, Morice seems to think they’re indigenous rather than from dialect French cocoche … cf. Michif < kouhkoush > AS WELL AS < kwahshoun > [sic] from Turtle Mountain Michif, and < kwashoon > from Fleury’s Michif dictionary.
“Souvenirs d’un Missionaire en Colombie Britannique” — pretty much the same text as Chez les Sauvages de la Colombie Britannique / Au Pays de l’Ours Noir” (1897)
Page 39, a CW greeting at Kluskuz:
Après une chaleureuse poignée de main et l’inévitable klaraoyam! (bonjour, en jargon tchinouk), ils vont se placer les uns derrière les autres, et forment dans l’étroit sentier une procession d’une quinzaine de sauvages à cheval à laquelle je préside.
(After a warm handshake and the inevitable klaraoyam! (hello, in Chinook Jargon), they will place themselves one behind the other, and form in the narrow path a procession of about fifteen Indians on horseback over which I preside.)
p. 153 has an interesting confirmation of the use of particular Chinuk Wawa word in the Dakelh, a.k.a. Carrier, language: “…je veux dire les potlaches ou festins d’apparat” (‘…I mean the potlatches or ceremonial feasts’). This word still shows up in Dakelh dictionaries, as balhats.
p. 156-157: When Morice first came to Dakelh country, Chinuk Wawa & English were rather useless for communication, and instead Métis “français du pays” worked well:
Malheureusement, ne connaissant pas la langue, je dus avoir recours à un interprète. Or, en raison de ma connaissance du tsilkohtine, dialecte apparenté, je commençais à en savoir assez pour deviner que certaines de mes phrases étaient traduites d’une manière absolument ridicule.
J’essayai du Ichinouk, jargon en usage sur toute la côte du Pacifique, et l’interprète avoua qu’il ne me comprenait pas assez pour rendre correctement ma pensée dans sa langue. Je pensai que l’anglais serait plus facile, mais je ne trouvai personne qui le connût suffisamment pour m’être d’aucun secours.
CHAPITRE VI II
Je me rabattis alors sur le français, je veux dire le français du pays tel qu’il est parlé par les métis canadiens et
autres serviteurs de la Compagnie de la Baie d’Hudson. Je parvins à me faire comprendre; mais hélas! comme les Bossuet et les Massillon durent tressaillir d’indignation dans leur tombe!
Il faut dire que ce français des montagnes, comme on l’appelle ici, est un parler ineffable. Sa phraséologie est presque celle des langues indiennes; les mots seuls sont plus ou moins français. Qu’on me permette d’en citer un exemple. Traduisons donc la phrase suivante en bon français, comme ne craindraient pas de dire nos métis:
« Quand le Fils de Dieu se fit homme, le démon était maître de presque tout le monde. Beaucoup étaient orgueilleux, beaucoup étaient adonnés à la luxure et presque tous se livraient à d’autres désordres. Quelques-uns seulement étaient justes, et ceux-là se trouvaient en Judée, le pays du peuple de Dieu. »
Voici maintenant comment on doit s’exprimer pour se faire comprendre:
« L’bon Dieu son garçon quand çà i devient la même chose
comme nous autres, le Yâble c’iui-là quasiment tout le
monde son bourgeois. Y en a il est faraud, y en a il est fou,
puis quasiment tous i fait pas bon ene aut’sorte. Bien que
que’ques-uns il est comme i faut: c’lui-là il est dans la
Judée, l’bon Dieu ses gens son pays. »
J’eus de la peine à me faire à ce français; aussitôt que je pus bégayer la langue des indigènes je la parlai, au risque de faire rire des fautes que je ne pouvais manquer de faire au commencement. Bien n’égaie un sauvage comme un mot mal prononce, surtout s’il prête à contre-sens.
Je fus donc content de ma première mission chez les Babines du lac.
(Unfortunately, not knowing the language, I had to use an interpreter. Now, because of my knowledge of Tsilkohtin [Chilcotin/Tsilhqut’in], a related dialect, I was beginning to know enough to guess that some of my sentences were translated in an absolutely ridiculous way.
I tried Chinook, a jargon in use all over the coast of the Pacific, and the interpreter confessed that he did not understand me well enough to convey my thoughts correctly in his language. I thought English would be easier, but I couldn’t find anyone who knew it well enough to be of no help to me.
I then fell back on French, I mean the French of the country as it is spoken by the Canadian half-breeds and
other servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company. I managed to make myself understood; but alas! how the Bossuet and the Massillons must have quivered with indignation in their grave!
It must be said that this mountain French, as we call it here, is an ineffable dialect. Its phraseology is almost that of the Indian languages; the words alone are more or less French. Allow me to quote one example. Let us therefore translate the following sentence into good French, as our half-breeds would not be afraid to say:
“When the Son of God became man, the devil was master of almost everyone. Many were proud, many were addicted to lust and almost all indulged in other disorders. Only a few were righteous, and these were in Judea, the country of the people of God. »
Here is now how we must express ourselves to be understood:
“The good Lord his boy when it becomes the same thing like the rest of us, the Devil is almost the whole world its bourgeois. Some of them are pretentious, some of them are crazy, then almost all do not do good in other ways. Although some of them are as it should be: this one is in the Judea, the good Lord his people his country. »
I had difficulty getting used to this French; as soon as I was able to stammer the language of the natives I spoke it, at the risk of making people laugh at the faults that I could not fail to do at the beginning. Nothing cheers up an Indian like a mispronounced word, especially if it means the wrong thing.
So I was happy with my first mission with the Babines of the lake.)
We can take note of that word bourgeois for ‘boss’, an extremely typical term in the Canadian fur trade.