Tuesday, 24 November 2015
The Liveyeres Labrador
Labrador’s Permanent Population
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, March 1912.
I was a Hydrographer and Cartographer for over 20 years. I have travelled in
few of those years. I think that the town may be Aillik—on the first chart I
ever compiled! I also remember well picking bakeapples which were later made
ALMOST a thousand miles south of us St. John’s awaited with anxiety the report of the Labrador fisheries we would carry back a week later; but half that distance north Cape Chidley threw its farthest peak into the Arctic waters. Inland from us for the last five hundred miles the barren rocks of
had offered nothing of life but its people; from outside in the open ocean had
come in at sunset for a week the fishing boats that alone are reason for
anything of life down there.
We lay at anchor at last in one of the thousands of indentations that wrinkle the coast, in a harbour called Ailik, an Eskimo word, which in English means “a coat with a sleeve.” A whole day’s wait was ahead of us, for we had to load a store of provisions and coal into the Stelle Maris, the old gunboat that ran still farther northward.
Ailik consists of nothing more than a harbour, and two or three mud huts and ragged fishing-stages, but in that it is just as important as most of the ports of call along the coast of Labrador.
A heavy, weather-marked, old boat came around one of the many islands and swung lazily down towards us. As it came nearer, the three passengers developed into two women and a man, the former rowing and the latter standing upright in the stern sculling, as is the custom of the skipper or stronger of the Labrador crew. The women pulled slowly and heavily, looking over their shoulders now and then at the passengers on the steamer watching their progress; and the man’s dark face was turned in the same direction as he mechanically worked into his rolling motion the proper direction. Close under the stern they came and into the stairs that led down from the side of the steamer close to the water. The girl was first to leap to the steps, where she grasped the painter and held to the rope guards of the stairs until the woman had collected something from the bottom of the boat and followed. Then they both mounted a few steps and stopped in evident embarrassment, under the gaze of the few passengers, until the man had made the boat fast.
I had watched from the bridge and now came down to see what had brought them from a shore where not a motion of life had been visible. The woman came quickly up the stairs, a bundle under her arms, and made direct for me, evidently because it required less courage to exhibit her wares to one passenger than to the interested crowd that almost blocked her way. She was tall and raw-boned, swarthy and stooped. A rough peaked cap secured hair that had been but indifferently fastened up and assuredly not much combed. The dress was her best—that was visible at a glance, with its tight neck, unshaped front and uneven tucks unspotted with careless use; it certainly had been donned but seldom in the last twenty years during which it must have done service. Behind her a tall, awkward girl in a tam and old dress that had once been white shambled shyly along, crowding the older woman in her bashfulness. The man was more openly interested and less embarrassed, although his dark chin and high cheek bones declared him an Eskimo removed by all the customs of centuries from the passengers with whom he mingled.
The woman’s discomfort was so evident, and yet it was so clear that she wanted to talk, that I opened the conversation by pointing to the bundle under her arm and asking her if she had anything to sell. It broke the ice, and to the surrounding passengers she displayed her wares, a half-dozen wall-pockets of a most peculiar bird skin, soft as velvet, and of the same rich brown, a pair of bright yellow mocassins and a pair of sealskin boots.
I reached for the boots.
“How much?” I asked.
She looked at the man and then at the girl and smiled weakly.
“I dunno,” she said in embarrassment. “I dunno what they’re worth. My man made ’em for himself. He’s dead now.”
She looked around frightened, as if she expected us to ridicule her “I think they’re worth a dollar-forty, aren’t they?”
A passenger handed her three fifty, cent pieces. “Ten cents change,” he commented as if fearing her ability to subtract.
The woman looked helplessly around, with the money in her hand.
“I haven’t a cent,” she muttered piteously, as if it meant the loss of the sale. She held out the money to him.
“That’s all right,” he said and took the boots from my hand.
Someone asked the price of the wall-pockets before the woman could make up her mind what to do.
“Thirty-five cents,” she said with the hesitation of one who fears she asks too much. Immediately several hands were outstretched. One wanted two and gave her four twenty-cent pieces, the common
piece of money. The woman did not count the money, but handed it at once to the
Eskimo, and the purchaser walked away with his goods without waiting for the
change. A look of alarm passed over the face of the girl and she pulled the
woman’s sleeves, but the latter was too busy taking the money and handing out
the things, one by one, to notice her.
In a minute she had sold everything and had broken away from the crowd with more relief at that than at the successful sale. The girl pulled her to one side immediately, and the money in the man’s pocket was counted over several times. Then the woman took something from it and came back to me.
“Do you know who it was bought the two things from me?” she asked anxiously.
“I think I do,” I answered.
“My girl says he paid me eighty cents, and the things were only seventy. I owe him ten cents. You see, I didn’t count the money,” she explained, as if her reputation depended on it. ‘‘I just handed it over to my boy. I want to give the ten cents back. And then I owe ten cents to the man who bought the boots.”
Later I got her to talk more freely, and in what she told me was the representative life of the Liveyere of the
Labrador coast. Neither the
girl nor the man were her children, although there is a disturbing mixture of
white and Eskimo blood in Labrador. She and
“her man” had adopted both of them—the girl an orphan by the death of a
neighbour and the other picked up when a mere lad to supply their craving for
children. Her husband and she were Newfoundlanders who had come down the Labrador coast twenty years before and had settled there
to eke out the cruel existence that greets the Liveyere. In the summer they
fished for cod, and in the spring for salmon up the rivers; in the winter they
retreated before the terrors of coast life up a river into the interior, where
they trapped and cut wood. Marten was almost the only animal they caught, with
a few fox and now and then a bear. Everything they could catch was given in
exchange for the necessaries of life.
“I never have a cent in my hand in ten years,” the woman explained, “except what I get from selling things like to-day. We’ve got to make some money this way to buy thread and needles to make more and to get things we have to have through the year.”
There was a drawn look about the girl’s eyes that was scarcely dispelled by her attempts to smile when she was noticed. The woman explained it as “something wrong inside. She can’t eat anything hardly. She don’t eat enough to keep a bird.”
It was then three in the afternoon and they had had nothing to eat since the night before, because they had been forced to leave home too early that morning to take time to eat. They were weak from hunger, but it was only after many questions that she volunteered this information, and she was very loth to accept what the passengers managed to find for her. A silver ring adorned the hand of the girl; it had been pounded from a twenty-cent piece by the Eskimo. The woman proudly exhibited a rough gold ring which “her man” had worked from a gold piece; and as she showed it to us and told how he had died of consumption, the ever-present
Labrador scourge, she forgot even her hunger.
The Liveyere receives his name from his answer of “I lives yere” to the ever-popular question of the interested traveller. He has not many fellows; on the whole thousand-mile coast of Labrador there are only about two thousand of them, hardy, gnarled, almost contented men and women, blackened by the winds and the cold to the colour of Indians. To them there is no place more desirable, although to the tourist not one minute of pleasure and few even of comfort seem possible. It is so long since they left
that they know nothing of modern improvements in conditions there since they
left, and they lack the ambition to try other life than that to which they have
The Liveyeres and the fishermen who come down the coast from
Newfoundland for the summer fishing mingle
little. The locations of the fishing stations are owned by Newfoundlanders, and
so long as the fishing grounds adjacent are profitable the harbours thus
claimed are valuable as the only home life they know in summer. The Liveyeres
have their own settlements as a rule, crude, rickety, uncertain joinings of
rough board and scantling, mostly buried out of sight in mud and grass. Advantage
is taken of the rocks to form one end or the back of the hut, and the only
break in the surface of the landscape that attracts the eye is the stovepipe
that protrudes through the mud and emits a white smoke that is the only “homey”
thing in all Labrador.
There are a few settlements of Liveyeres that have come to be prominent points in
Labrador. There they have congregated for many years in
sufficient numbers to make a small village, and where the location happens to
be a good fishing point there is a commercial importance that shows in the
added energy of the inhabitant and the cluster of fishing boats that gather in
the harbour. Spotted Islands and Batteau are
but two of these points. Not many boats work from the former now, but the
Liveyeres have clung to it and have erected a few buildings that look as
permanent as any on the coast—which may be misleading to the uninitiated.
At Cartwright, one of the main ports of call, a number of Liveyeres reside, attracted perhaps by the
Hudson’s Bay store and the bustle of the Hudson’s Bay wharf.
Although the half-breed and Eskimo are not regarded as Liveyeres, they are so
mixed with them that it is often impossible to make a distinction. Frequently a
Liveyere looks as dark and foreign as the half-breeds, and in many cases it
might not be wise to seek the truth.
With all this foreign look and unusual conditions, it sounds strange to hear English spoken as well as among any uneducated classes. One of the peculiarities of the Labrador English is that “s” is always added to the verb. I asked a Liveyere where he spent the winters.
“We goes up the river,” he said, taking one hand from his pocket to point indefinitely over his shoulder. “We just cuts wood, and does a little trapping now and then. Yes, we takes the huskies with us.”
An interesting little half-breed boy at Cartwright promised possibilities for a photograph. Instinctively supposing that he would not understand my English, I waved my arms to denote where I wanted him to stand. He stepped back into position instantly. I motioned for him to move away from a white building.
“Yes, sir,” he said as plainly as and more civilly than, most Canadian boys. And when I placed a coin in his hand at the end he said “Thank you, sir,” in a way that made me feel a trifle silly after my gesticulations to reach his understanding.
Hudson’s Bay factor
walked past. “That little fellow makes a lot of money that way,” he explained
with a laugh. “He always comes down here when the boat comes in He’s a
pretty-well photographed boy.”
Out on the wharf a number of dark-skinned men were lifting barrels from small boats and piling them in rows. A straggly-whiskered fellow explained that these were the salmon caught up the river and now being sold to the
Hudson’s Bay Company for shipment. His own
home was thirty miles inland and his sole work catching salmon, the season for
which had then passed. For the remainder of the short summer he and his fellows
would be busy preparing for the winter, endeavouring to ensure what little
comfort they could and to add a little to their year’s earnings by trapping a
few fur-bearing animals. Sand Hill Bay
It was almost impossible to see the Liveyere in his natural state. The men change themselves little for the arrival of the steamer every two weeks, but one knew well that the aprons and half-buttoned dresses that adorned the women were donned only for the half-hour that the boat was in. A woman not prepared did not appear until she was, and as the boat was drawing away two or three who had probably been struggling with a recalcitrant but necessary button would burst from a hut and look after us to show that their intentions were good. The men never wear coats, and it is unnecessary to mention collars with the Liveyere. To dress up, a Liveyere ties a dirty handkerchief around his neck and gives his cap a new tilt. Sometimes he wears huge leather boots, but more often sealskin boots. The latter are made by the Eskimos and are watertight so long as they are not allowed to dry too hard. Therefore, whenever a Liveyere passes water he shoves his foot into it to keep his feet dry.
The only delicacy apart from fish that is obtainable to the Liveyere is the bake-apple. This is a berry indigenous to Labrador and
Newfoundland, a mushy, yellow berry when
ripe, with something of the appearance of a faded raspberry and the taste of a
cranberry and raspberry mixed. It is delicious when served with sugar, but to a
novice its appearance of advanced ripeness is against it. It is very much
sought after in Newfoundland,
but is growing scarcer year by year. Blueberries, too, grow in Labrador in some quantities, but are not favoured like
It leaves a better memory in the mind of the visitor to
to talk to the Liveyere and realise how satisfied he is with his lot. Although
living a life infinitely more severe than the fisherman, he complains so much
less that conditions might be reversed. In fact, I never heard one Liveyere
express himself harshly about the conditions in which he is forced to live. In
summer his home is on the coast, where all the best, or the least worst, of Labrador is found. But in winter his life must be
terrible; and since winter occupies about eight months of the year, it is no
wonder that his skin becomes as if it were tanned, like leather. Probably the
Liveyere of Labrador lives the cruellest life of all men with white blood in
To the April number Mr. Amy will contribute an article entitled "The Floatinig Menace" a description of the icebergs of
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.