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Travels in the Shining Island
Roger Burford Mason

Travels in the Shining Island
Roger Burford Mason
Natural Heritage Books
Toronto 1996

Subtitled The Story of James Evans and the Invention of the Cree Syllabary Alphabet, Roger Burford Mason’s biography of the nineteenth century missionary to northern Canada and the inventor of a written language for the Cree people is scholarly and engaging. This is not a conventional biography: Mason skips in fairly perfunctory manner over Evans’s childhood in Hull and his courtship. It is really the story of Evans’s conviction that the native American people should be educated, a conviction which brought him into conflict with the might Hudson Bay Company, whose acquisitiveness resulted in massive over-hunting, subsequent movement of people, and the degradation of the Indian population.

Evans’s mission covered a vast tract of land which he travelled in a light tin canoe of his own invention – the canoe glittered in the sun and the Indians called it his "Shining Island". Evans’s invention and innovation turned to ways of communicating the Bible to the Cree, known as "the exact people" because of the purity of their language. His simple syllabary system better approximated their speech than the Roman alphabet, and could be modified for languages other than Cree. Its use spread as Evans, strongly opposed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, began to print in the new alphabet.

In all this work, Evans’s modesty and industry shines through, and his acceptance of poverty. An acquaintance wrote of visiting Evans and his wife Mary, who only had a little flour to eat:

To render this more palatable and nutritious, as they thought, it was mixed with fish spawn and eaten like pancakes, which was partaken of not only with resignation but with gratitude and cheerfulness. James Evans was literally a man who made a sport of hardship and privation.

Evans was of course motivated in his difficult work – long journeys took him away from his wife and their daughter for months at a time – by his mission to convert the Indians. But his work as an educator was also fired by his concern at the facile destruction of Indian way of life by vested interests. Evans wrote to his brother in England, of the need for Indians to be able to read and write, with great feeling:

I have written to the Hudson’s Bay Company Commission headquarters in London asking for permission to import a small printing press, fully aware of their policy to allow no such device into their territory. They doubtless fear that the spread of knowledge will endanger their hold on the hunters. But I beg you to use all your persuasive powers to make the Company Committee see the evil there is in keeping these people in ignorance. The fur traders cannot hope to monopolize this great land for ever; they must give way to immigration. What then of the Indian? The people must be prepared to meet settlement.

With our benefit of hindsight, Evans’s prescience and passion seems all the more moving.

The governor general of Canada wrote of Evans

…the fact is, the nation has given many a man a title and a pension, and then a resting-place in Westminster Abbey, who never did half so much for his fellow creatures.

Evans died in England at the age of forty-six. He had been accused of having sexual relations with Indian women and was recalled to England to answer the accusations by the annual Methodist conference. The evidence suggests that these accusations were fabricated by Evans’s enemies. He was found to be innocent by a court in Canada, and completely exonerated by the Methodist conference. But the strain of these proceedings must have sadly affected Evans, and he died of a stroke after speaking about his mission in a church in Hull. He was buried in Hull, in a church which was subsequently left derelict, bombed during World War Two, and struck by lightning. In 1954 Evans’s remains were taken from the Hull church to Canada where they were reinterred by the Cree among whom, as a local newspaper wrote, "the name of James Evans is still revered". Evans never sought recognition or fame, but the fact that Cree people gathered to honour him one hundred years after is death is the most telling of testimonies, and Roger Burford Mason’s account of this life is a fitting and erudite tribute.

Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith


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