Now and Then – Ruth and John McRae

Ruth and John McRae’s lives have truly been an adventure. This husband and wife team has spent decades abroad, working in India, Bangladesh and visiting friends in many other countries. John was a Christian educator on behalf of the Canadian Council of Churches. Ruth MacDonald had met John in her hometown of Edmonton when he became the General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement (SCM). John had finished his education at the University of Toronto and was eager to be immersed in his chosen field when he and Ruth were offered the chance to represent Canada as delegates to the Third World Conference of Christian Youth. Both recognized this was the chance of a lifetime.

They happily fulfilled their nuptials in Edmonton on September 12, 1952; honeymooned at the McRae Tobacco Lake cottage, then travelled to Montreal where they boarded the Empress of France, bound for London. After a short family visit there, they travelled south, through the Suez Canal, finally reaching Bombay and then Kottayam, South India, for the conference. This initial trip set the pace for many decades, as John continued to teach and train receptive minds.

“John and I worked and lived together, had our children in Toronto and West Bengal India, all the while cherishing and fostering family life, despite the transient nature of our employment,” Ruth explains, smiling. “My ancestors were pioneers too. The MacDonald family left Skye, Scotland in the 1700s. They had been life-long shepherds, but with the introduction of Cheviot sheep that could ruminate unattended summer and winter, shepherds were not needed.”

The MacDonalds moved to the Cape Bretton area of Canada and later, part of the family relocated to Edmonton. Her mother’s McLennan family left Aberdeen, Scotland in 1836 and settled in southern Ontario. Murray and Belle (nee McLennan) MacDonald married and gave birth to their only child, Ruth, on May 12, 1928. Murray became principal of the Normal Practice School in Edmonton.

“One of my earliest memories, at two, is getting up Christmas morning before the family was up. I spotted a tiny rocking chair and a green table and chairs. I cried and had to be put back to bed. I got up again when I smelled bacon frying.” One gift that lasted a long time was a two-dollar pass for the local rink. “I loved skating and I went almost every night before bed,” Ruth shares. Those were carefree days. “My wise mother always claimed the first five years of one’s life are the best, no responsibilities, no school, just fun.”

“Despite being an only child I had lots of playmates. Our street in south Edmonton had 35 kids in one block. Everyone was friendly and we could walk safely. I would jump on my bike and peddle over to see my best friend Barbara.” After she became a student, Ruth recalls the June morning when the school was taken over by the Air Force with only a day’s notice. “We were relocated to another place and we had a lovely time there,” Ruth contends.

After the war, Ruth’s first job at 15 was selling cheese in Woodward’s basement for 50 cents an hour. “It was a lot of fun selling all those cheese varieties to eager customers.” At university, Ruth enjoyed music, art appreciation, geology and organic chemistry. She wanted to be a teacher. “Later, when I did practice teaching, I happily wound up in the same classrooms where former teachers had taught me.”

John grew up in what is now the Weppler home on Meredith Street in Gore Bay. There were many rooms and a beautiful blue rug in the living room. He recalls a set of smooth blocks that could be fashioned into many structures, restricted only by the extent of his imagination. The blue carpet was his ocean. Small boats would navigate the big water to reach block structures at the periphery. Visitors would come to the house and sit at the ‘edge’ of the ocean.

An early memory was driving in the car with his dad at age three. “A man with a hammer came with us. He would get out at various places to hit rocks with his hammer. I thought that he was looking for oil,” John explains. “Another time, I was in the car with both parents. My mum, who loved turnips, made dad stop the car when she spotted a field of them. She ran, climbed the fence and grabbed a turnip. My father looked askance, and tried to disassociate himself from mother’s innocent little prank. We enjoyed the turnip later.”

The family had a camp at Tobacco Lake. “One day we were at our uncle’s camp near ours. There was a large hornet nest under the eaves. We threw rocks at it and ran. Luckily, I could run faster than my cousins,” he offers with a grin, “but no one was really hurt.”

Effie McQuarrie was John’s favourite teacher in his high school years. “She was pretty, a good teacher and everyone loved her. A few of us wound up in the cloak room for mild punishment when we were acting up, but we knew we deserved it,” John confesses. “On a sadder note, I was 16, in high school and far away when my dad died suddenly at age 60. My mother had to take over his many business affairs and she was lost without him. Later, she moved to Toronto to be with Jane and Nancy, my sisters.”

John was in a student residence during his University of Toronto years. Half the residence members were veterans, mostly POWs and ‘goslings’ like John. These were good years and he made life-long friends. John had various jobs during his university years including bus boy at the Banff Springs Hotel in 1945. “I quickly learned dishes had to be distributed evenly on the tray or the whole apparatus would come crashing down,” John acknowledges. “I also climbed my first and only mountain in Banff, worked in a boiler factory, was chauffer to a judge, was a Christmas card salesman and was a ‘dogsbody’ (an underling) at a children’s camp.”

After he finished his university education, he moved to Edmonton as General Secretary of the SCM, the Student Christian Movement. After meeting John fondly remembers early visits to Ruth’s home. Her mother would drop a shoe on the floor above when she felt it was time for John to go home. “We heard it alright, but that strategy didn’t work,” he claims, smiling.

After John was named a delegate to the Third World Assembly of Christian Youth India, the couple married, recognizing the importance of staying together at that time. “We travelled to the conference in South India where we met the keynote speaker, Martin Neimoeller, a former Christian resistance fighter who had escaped Hitler’s net.” John recalls, “Martin couldn’t figure out our relationship and finally he asked if we were married or brother and sister. Correcting possible misconceptions was a humorous highlight.”

The couple next visited the Canadian United and Anglican missions in the Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. While in the Punjab, John paid a visit the Anglican Priest in Kangra, North India. A local man led him to the gate of the house where the Canadian missionary lived, then stopped and said he was not allowed to go past this point. It was shocking that the English class system had been extended to the local church. It was natural, though, since the caste is important in both countries. In Bengal, Ruth came down with malaria. “We agreed that we might return to India some time, but never Bengal. Oh the irony!”

Ruth recalls being treated like royalty as the first and only passengers on the Filipino freighter they boarded leaving Calcutta. They visited friends in Rangoon, Burma where Ruth was given a beautiful sarong. They made lots of other stops. They swam in Singapore’s harbour and ate bird’s nest soup as one of 14 courses in a Chinese restaurant. “It is the spit binding the twigs in the nest that makes the soup such a delicacy, cherished by the Chinese,” Ruth explains. “We spent a week in Hong Kong and I came down with appendicitis. Luckily we got to a good hospital and doctor.”

In Japan the couple visited the local SCM and found them indignant about the USA using two atomic bombs to end the war. “Despite this, we were very well-treated. We stayed with the Powell family, Anglicans, who had been there for six years.” There was a May Day parade in Tokyo and foreigners were asked to stay indoors, but Ruth and John joined the students, many of whom were still dressed in wartime khaki. Students carried many anti-American signs, one showing a cowboy toting two six shooters. It said, ‘We don’t want American culture here.’

In 1953 the couple returned to Toronto, where they became secretaries for the Student Christian Movement housed in Hart House, at the University of Toronto. With Ruth’s able support, John completed his Master’s degree on how institutions can elicit loyalties and actions that moral individuals would never do or even consider on their own.

In 1955 first daughter Shelagh was born at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital. John was awarded the Rockefeller Scholarship, which allowed a year of transition to see if the ministry was the right course for him. John entered Trinity Theological College the following year. In 1957 a second daughter, Deborah, was born and her father was ordained an Anglican Deacon in the Diocese of Niagara and graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree.

Between 1958 and 1964 the family returned to India where John was a Christian educator. He was ordained a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Barrackpore in the State of West Bengal. The process of being ordained in India was made more powerful for both Ruth and John by the laying on of hands. The hands were brown, not white as they would have been at home. “It was an emotional ceremony for both of us; one we will always remember.”

Ruth had her doubts about returning to Bengal, where she had encountered malaria, particularly with two young children. Deborah had been asthmatic as a baby but her doctor insisted this climate would be good for her. Once settled in Bengal in their first home, Ruth was able to come to terms with her fears. Both John and Ruth attended language school in Darjeeling, a town in the cool Himalayan foothills during the hot months extending from April to July.

While in Darjeeling, the couple needed someone to care for their children while they were at language school. A parade of women who didn’t fit the bill came past the door until finally, a fresh-faced young woman appeared and said, “I am your new ayah (nanny)!” Ruth and John were so impressed with her and her English that they hired her on the spot. Years later she told them that those were the only English words she knew. She became a permanent member of the McRae household in India. Later, back home in Canada, it didn’t take her long to gain enough skills to be successful on her own.

Third daughter Norah was born in 1962 in West Bengal. “The staff watched this first white child like a hawk,” Ruth concedes. “After hearing the monkey story I was glad they had. Years earlier, a big monkey had picked up a baby from the nursery, jumped through a window and climbed a nearby tree. Staff finally coaxed the monkey down, trading a banana for the baby.” Ruth’s Bachelor of Education enabled home-schooling for the girls. She had obtained a curriculum designed for westerners living abroad.

Ruth’s parents came for a visit to India and they were surprised at their casual lifestyle without a car or telephone. Sugar, kerosene, flour and butter were rationed. Someone always had to line up for these items. “My dad was an artist and he blossomed, capturing local scenes with watercolours and paper. Later he sold these and paid for their trip,” Ruth adds. “A few years later, I travelled to Edmonton with the two girls to be with my dying mother.”

In 1964 the McRae family moved to Cranbrook, British Columbia where John was appointed rector of the Anglican Church. Nora was two, Debbie seven and Shelagh nine. The family’s health had eroded over six years of exposure to dysentery, and other tropical diseases as well as a poor diet. The good folk in Cranbrook soon righted that and the family was happy there. In British Columbia, John was a delegate to the Anglican General Synod and he urged help for the victims of current widespread famine in Bihar India.

Ottawa Bishop ‘Ernie’ Reed heard him and asked him to join his staff. After relocating to Ottawa, John took several more training courses in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, Bethel, Maine and Bloomington, Indiana. He also helped start the first ‘Miles for Millions March’ in Canada. Little Norah marched and got a personal cheque from Prime Minister Trudeau, which she never cashed. Ottawa had good schools for the girls and Ruth began teaching new immigrants English as a second language.

When the school board ended the funding for this program, Ruth was asked to join the Palliative Care team at the 200-bed Riverside Hospital. “It was hard work but it was wonderful too. People were so appreciative of the little things that we could do for them, like washing their hair in bed and giving back rubs.” The hospital had a great training program for new inductees. After a few years, the bureaucracy took over and closed the hospital.

In 1970, Ruth and John returned to India for their first real holiday. John also did a small evaluation job in Bihar for the Director of a new NGO (non-governmental organization) program born of CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, formed in 1968 by Trudeau. That same year John joined the NGO Division of CIDA as Asia Project Officer. From 1973 to 1976 the couple moved to Dhaka Bangladesh where John, First Secretary of Development, helped organize aid for Bangladeshi refugees. In 1976 John was promoted to Director of the International NGO and later he became Deputy Director General for this organization. This involved a lot of travelling in Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa.

In 1986 John retired with a ‘silver handshake’ when Brian Mulroney was reducing the size of the civil service. An award for his fine work enabled the couple to take an Audubon Society-led bird-watching trip to Trinidad and Tobago. It was clear the Audubon expert was most upset when Ruth spotted the elusive potoo bird first. After that trip, the couple did more field work and travelled to locations in Europe and South America where they had many friends.

John reflects upon his many years of serving the church and the government and he ponders about the legacy of these years. His life and Ruth’s have been closely connected for over six decades. He hopes he has achieved the optimum balance between work and family commitments.

Today Norah lives in Victoria where she is a Director of Co-op Education at the University of Victoria. She is working on her PhD. Deborah, who took criminology at Carlton, is a parole officer for Corrections Canada in Toronto. When asked what she enjoyed most in her life so far, Debbie claims it is the time she spent in India. She would spend hours on the stairs of the local tea shop, absorbing the local Bengali dialect. Shelagh and her husband Robert Hamilton are both physicians with their own medical clinic in Gore Bay.

The family gets together at their Tobacco Lake camp. “John has been going there since he was six weeks old. He thinks he was conceived there,” Ruth adds, smiling. “As a young lad, John used to go with his dad when his dad’s legal work took him to various Island towns and the local reserves. Our girls missed out on some of the early Canadian experiences, but they always liked school and did well academically. When we got back to Canada they had to blend with a different culture. They couldn’t swim or skate. The local social settings were unfamiliar so they created their own.”

It seems that John’s strength has always been inductive reasoning, connecting non-linear dots, relating ideas that may not seem linked on the surface, like Economic History and English. During his career, John has been a compassionate and successful problem solver, a huge asset in the developing part of the world. Ruth adds, “He got all the awards for his Divinity courses. He was a brilliant student and very persuasive,” she adds smiling. John interjects, “I was not sports-minded, so I could focus on other skills.” C.S. Lewis was an inspirational force in John’s life as were good friends Jim and Mary Puxley in India.

Ruth feels her strengths came to life through teaching in Ottawa and abroad. “My work in India added a richness that enhanced this ability,” she offers. “We made the best decisions we could at each crossroad in life and now we if we could, we would both do the same thing again.”

“Our kids knew exactly what they wanted to do in life and they did it. We were able to let them be who they were and what they would become. We nurtured that inner conviction and contributed to the confidence they attained,” John muses. “I would like to write a series of articles from my past experiences, as well as an essay about Gore Bay, how life was when I was growing up. Today kids are not exposed to practical learning as much as we were; it’s all virtual learning now, from computers and televisions. Kids need to be outside learning about real life too.”

“Manitoulin is a good example of rural depopulation and marginalization,” John attests. “But this island is our home now and we are happy here, near our oldest daughter. When we come over the hill on the mainland and see the north shore of Manitoulin and the channel, we know we are home.”

“This is where I started, and I always feel safe here,” John confirms. “After being abroad, I would like the freedom to go anywhere to be preserved. We could even foster independence by growing all our own food here as they did 100 years ago. The global world has exploited its resources but we can’t underestimate man’s ingenuity either. If we can get out of our carbon-based economy and go fossil-free it will be a more sustainable society, for the world and for Manitoulin.”