Girl Goes to Labrador-June 16, 1916

My grandmother, Laura Isobel Millen, from Westmount, Quebec–always up for an adventure–found herself smitten with the idea of working in Labrador after hearing Sir Wilfred Grenfell at a fundraising event for the International Grenfell Association in Montreal. She spent the summer of 1915 working as a teacher in L’Anse au Loup, billeting with the Linstead family, and documented her experience in a detailed journal that I am currently transcribing. She was also an accomplished photographer and left albums of photos, which she developed and printed herself in Labrador. I’ll be sharing excerpts from the journal as I go along. Below is a newspaper article about my grandmother’s return to Labrador the following year, 1916. She stayed for a full year, right through the winter. She remained a staunch supporter and fundraiser for the Grenfell Association for the rest of her life, and a lifelong friend of Wilfred Grenfell’s.

Sir Wilfred Grenfell was a British Missionary doctor who initially visited the local fishers in Labrador in 1892 and was so shocked by the living conditions that he established the Grenfell Mission (later the International Grenfell Association) and devoted the rest of his life to the people of Labrador and northern Newfoundland. He was an outgoing, charismatic man and managed to recruit an army of mission workers and fundraisers over the years who helped build schools, hospitals, community farms, lumber mills, co-operative stores, orphanages, and establish a handicraft industry. He travelled up and down the coast by medical vessel–the Strathcona– when the ocean was free of ice, and by dog sled in the winter–about 1,800 miles–to bring medical aid to the communities. Later, he devoted his time to fundraising, giving lectures and showing lantern slides of Labrador.

One of my grandmother’s photos of Wilfred Grenfell on the Strathcona

Friday, June 16, 1916




Teaching Native Hand Crafts, Showing Children How To Play and Pulling Teeth Will Be Young Woman’s Tasks

Montreal, Canada, June 16 – The widespread interest in Labrador aroused by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell’s recent visit to Montreal has been increased by the news that Miss Isobel Millen, daughter of J. Ernest Millen, will become a member of the Labrador mission staff.

Miss Millen, who is widely known in the younger circles of Westmount and Montreal, was educated at the Montreal High School. There she displayed unusual ability and was one of the originators of the high school magazine, of which she was business manager. After leaving school Miss Millen took a prominent part in social service work in the city, being connected with both the University Settlement and the Griffintown Girls’ club. Last summer Miss Millen spent three months as a volunteer worker at l’Anse au Loup, on the southern Labrador coast. During the last few months she has been taking an arts and crafts course in New York, with a view to teaching the Labrador women some simple forms of handwork.

Will Teach School

Miss Millen will sail from North Sydney, N. S., June 27 for Newfoundland, and after an 8-hour trip up the coast, she will embark for the three days’ journey to her destination on the Labrador coast. L’Anse au Loup will be her headquarters for the summer months, where she will be the mission worker in charge. There Miss Millen will teach, the school being the English church chapel. Twenty-two children attend this school. There are no Eskimo scholars, but all belong to the native white type, called by themselves the “livyeres,”

There are no trees in the locality, and the vegetation consists only of low shrubs and moss. Mosquitoes and a species of black fly called the “cousin” abound. Around the coast there is always ice, even on the hottest day. Last summer the hottest day was represented on the thermometer by 68 degrees. Sometimes for two or three weeks in the summer, the ice from the Arctic current blocks the coast, and there is no way of getting in or out.

Besides teaching school in the summer months, Miss Millen will hold sewing and cooking classes, playing classes (the children do not know how to play) and dental clinics. There is a great need for dentists, for the teeth of many of the inhabitants are in wretched condition. The speech of many of the older folk are difficult to understand owing to total absence of teeth. Miss Millen has attended dental clinics in Montreal, and has learned to pull teeth, and to fill cavities temporarily.

Doctor Grenfell, head of the mission, has a dentist on board the Strathcona, the vessel in which he makes his rounds, but it would be impossible for him to stay long enough at each place to attend to minor defects and prepare all cavities for filling. It will be one of Miss Millen’s duties to have the cavities prepared so all the dentist will have to do will be to fill them.

On Sunday she will hold church service. Miss Millen is taking a piano, which will be the first on the Labrador coast.

The winter months will be spent at Forteau, eleven miles from 1’Anse au Loup, where the mission has a hospital, with a furnace.

Make Artificial Flowers

Sister Bailey, who has been in charge for ten years, looks after seventy miles of coast, nursing and doctoring all within that area. Sister Bailey learned artificial flower making in Paris, and has been teaching this art to Labrador women. Many of the flowers made have been sold in Montreal and New York.

It will be Miss Millen’s duty to take charge of the industrial work in this section of the coast. The industrial department of the mission is very important. The winters are long, time is plentiful, and money is scarce with thes Labrador folk. The mission aims to teach useful handicrafts, provide materials, pay for the work done and find a market for the result.

At present the women make mats out of rags. They have to be trained to use good taste in the combination of colors. One of Miss Millen’s plans is to develop a distinctive Labradorian basket made from a peculiar grass native to the coast. Another plan is to make use of native resources through the manufacture of dyes from common plants and animals.

Miss Millen has learned the principles of dye making and in the summer will experiment in making dyes from starfish, squids, seaweed, moss, old iron, bark. etc. These dyes will be used to color the various articles made by the women.

Homespun making and pattern weaving of different sorts is carried on by means of looms. Reed basket making, wood carving, making of Labradorite jewelry and spinning are other forms of hand work.

Miss Millen will spend about a week in each village in her district, teaching the women these arts in their own homes. She will pay several visits to each village during the winter to see how the work is progressing. In the spring the work will be collected and sold.

Mail is received once a week in the summer, but in the fall, winter and spring many months may pass without news from the outside world.

Miss Millen expects to stay at least a year on the Labrador coast.

My grandmother in Sidney, Nova Scotia, en route to Labrador, 1915.







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