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  • An Apostle of the North: Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas
  • Elizabeth Elbourne (bio)
H.A. Cody. An Apostle of the North: Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas. Introduction by William R. Morrison and Kenneth S. Coates University of Alberta Press2002. LXXXV, xviii, 373.

An Apostle of the North: Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas is an exact reprint, including terrific photographs, of a 1908 memoir of Bishop William Carpenter Bompas, the first Anglican bishop of several successive territories in the Canadian Northwest. This new edition includes a valuable, lengthy introduction and a new index by historians William R. Morrison and Kenneth S. Coates. Biographer H.A. Cody was - so Morrison and Coates tell us - an Anglican clergyman who eventually became a minor early twentieth-century Canadian novelist, specializing in stirring yarns about muscular Christians in the Yukon. Bompas, who began his long career as a Church Missionary Society envoy to the Indigenous peoples of the North and ended it as Bishop of the Yukon, seems to have been as muscular a Christian as any. His staggeringly large territory at one point covered what are today the separate Anglican dioceses of Caledonia, Athabasca, Mackenzie River, and the Yukon, all of which he traversed on foot and by dog sled for over forty years. He was dependent on the support of the diverse northern peoples with whom he mostly lived, and he learned several local languages. He was one of the few people to leave written records about a number of areas of the mid-nineteenth-century Canadian North. At the end of his life he saw the advent of the gold rush. He complained vigorously to the Canadian government about the treatment of Indigenous peoples by miners and settlers. He also founded one of the region's first residential schools for Indigenous children. Morrison and Coates make a convincing case that Bompas is a significant but insufficiently known figure in the history of the Canadian North, whose life contained many ambiguities.

To reprint a period missionary memoir, even of such an important figure, is not, however, unproblematic. The limitations inherent in the classic Christian missionary biography, not least the occlusion of non-white voices, hardly need to be repeated here. Morrison and Coates contend, however, that this particular memoir deserves reprinting because it remains the best existing account of Bompas's life, given that Bompas left few personal papers. Indeed, the lack of private papers ultimately scuppered their own earlier attempt at a more extensive modern biography, they attest. This is a great shame. They further argue convincingly that Cody's work is in itself an illuminating period piece, shedding valuable light on Victorian attitudes, including Victorian racism. [End Page 309]

Morrison and Coates might have added that An Apostle of the North does have considerable intrinsic interest, in addition to the light it sheds on the issue of Christianity and historical memory. The reader is constantly reminded of the importance of the environment and of natural hardship in the history of the North, for example. Even the bishop suffered scurvy and came close to starvation, while the memoir shows illness and hunger frequently ravaging northern communities. An Apostle of the North underscores the fact (possibly inadvertently) that missionaries themselves were scarcely alike and had their own demons. In Victorian terms, Bompas was an unconventional clergyman. Constantly on the move, he eschewed classic Victorian domesticity, spent very long periods away from his wife, and disliked towns intensely. Whatever he might have said in denigration of Indigenous cultures, he adopted aspects of a nomadic lifestyle and other material customs of his potential converts, if only for the sake of sheer survival in a harsh landscape. In one telling anecdote, Cody describes how the bishop refused to sleep in a bed on a rare visit to a fellow clergyman, claiming that he was unaccustomed to rooms and preferred to sleep on the floor. In a letter home to a supporter, Bompas compared sleeping in an Inuit home to sleeping in a pigsty. The negative imagery is obviously significant. It's also significant, however, that the bishop was in fact sleeping under skins in a...


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