By Paula R. Stiles
Bertin, Johanna. Strange Events: Incredible Canadian Monsters, Curses, Ghosts, and Other Tales. Canmore (AB): Altitude Publishing Canada, Ltd., 2003. 144pp. $9.95 CDN; $7.95 USD. ISBN: 1-56164-327-0.
Like Barbara Smith’s ghost books, this is a regular denizen of the supermarket, Canadian-culture bookshelves. It’s not terribly long or deep. Even with the presence of a short bibliography at the end, I can’t say that I find its info necessarily reliable. It seems to be aimed at kids more than adults, though that could be because I read a lot of books like this during my Von-Daniken phase in early teenagerhood.
That said, Strange Events has its charms. It’s divided into seven chapters: Devil’s Playgrounds; Water Serpents; Wild Men; Curses; Ghosts, Poltergeists, and Premonitions; Mystery Ships; and Unidentified Flying Objects. One good thing about this is that collating stories into subject chapters, instead of according to area or time period, clearly shows some trends in Canadian folklore that are unique to Canada (and some to specific regions). For example, at least three chapters (Devil’s Playgrounds, Water Serpents, and Mystery Ships), and parts of others, like Unidentified Flying Objects, deal almost entirely with water-related supernatural phenomena. This isn’t terribly surprising when you consider that Canada, despite being the second-largest country in the world, is surrounded on three sides by water. Canada also has a huge number of lakes. So, it makes sense that many of these stories might occur on water. The author’s being from New Brunswick might also have influenced her interest in water phenomena.
Another good thing is that the author is taking stories from all over Canada. Not only do you get a Greatest Hits of Canadian Folklore, but you also get to see larger trends in legends from more than one region. Some of these aren’t exactly unique (ghost trains, ships and shrieking haunts pop up all over the world), but others are specific to Canada, especially the First Nations and Inuit stories. One of the most famous is the tale of the “Vanishing Village”. This was an Inuit settlement that a trapper named Joe Labelle claimed to have found near Hudson Bay in the Arctic. This story has since been thoroughly debunked and is often used as an example of European ignorance of Inuit culture. The Inuit were still nomadic at the time and the empty settlement Labelle claimed to have found could have been “abandoned” for all sorts of perfectly-ordinary reasons. But Bertin adds a further dimension to the legend by recounting a similar Inuit ghost story that predates Labelle’s account by hundreds of years.
Vanishing villages are not unknown in British folklore (Brigadoon, for example). There are, in fact, many real vanished villages dating from the initial period of the Black Death (1348-51) all over Europe. You may come upon a pile of brickwork or a lone, stone ruin (often of the church) in the middle of a field, and that is all that’s left of an entire village whose inhabitants died off in the pandemic.
Canada also has lake and sea monsters. There is the Cadborosaurus off the west coast, but the most famous one is probably Ogopogo from Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. Barbara Smith talks about Ogopogo in her book, Ghost Stories and Mysterious Creatures of British Columbia. However, Bertin goes into more detail. She also discusses the slow change from the scary First Nations “lake demon”, N’ha-a-ailk (Naitaka) to the goofy and cuddly tourist attraction, Ogopogo. With the name change, the monster has been defanged and the legend infantilized.
It is interesting to note that both of the above tales have counterparts in the British Isles, especially Scotland. An even more famous lake monster than Ogopogo is found in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Despite attempts to commercialize it along the lines of Ogopogo, however, “Nessie” remains a rather frightening cryptozoological animal.
Finally, there is the chapter on “Wild Men”, which discusses monsters like the Windigo and the less-famous “Gougou”, which threatened Samuel de Champlain in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There’s also the true story of the Fiddler brothers. They were two shamans of the Cree people who performed a mercy killing on a dying girl to prevent her from “turning Windigo” in 1906. They were subsequently hounded to death by European authorities. It’s an especially dark example of the poor relations between First Nations people and Europeans in Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What the two men did seems very harsh by today’s standards, but it was done in a time of desperate starvation, after the girl begged to be put out of her misery. And, of course, no one ever addressed the fact that she wouldn’t have been starving to death in the first place had it not been for the callous and wasteful slaughter of game animals over the centuries by Europeans.
So, overall, it’s an entertaining book that tells the reader some stories he/she may not yet know. It’s not a bad general introduction to Canadian folklore.
You can find Strange Events: Incredible Canadian Monsters, Curses, Ghosts, and Other Tales on Amazon.com.