There is one last Bow Valley place name that I find I can’t avoid treating on. It’s the place I actually lived for much of my childhood, the community that my parents were connected with. For me, in a strange way, it both was and was not my home.


This name may have an easy familiarity for you from many places. There are many people with that name, first and last: Morley Safer the journalist, Morley Callaghan the author, the female protagonist of Stuart Maclean’s weekly narratives on CBC, Thomas Morley the composer, Robert Morley the actor, Edward Morley the scientist – famous for the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which was a seminal step in the proof that the speed of light is invariant in a vacuum and thus an early harbinger of Einstein’s relativity…

All of these, and more, make me think of Morley, Alberta. So, to some extent, does the name Marley; so too, Mexican mole sauce; a taste of it in Westmoreland; perhaps in murmur; some in mouldy; even in more and nevermore. An antonym in Lesley or Leslie. You see, Morley was one of the earliest names I ever knew. I think I knew Morley was home around the same time I knew Harbeck was my family name.

And yet.

When I was a little kid, it was all I knew. I joined my parents everywhere. I trailed them around as my father greeted, one by one, ever single person at the banquet, or the tent meeting, or the house meeting, or the pow-wow, over and over, “Âba wathtech,” shake hands. Long chats in a language I didn’t know. At pow-wows, the sounds of drumming and singing. At house meetings in one house or another on the reserve, song after song after song – “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” all the classics, and long testimonies and long prayers, some in English, some in Stoney, many switching back and forth. The older people making cooing noises over little me, calling me by my Stoney name, “Îpabi Daguskan!” Son of Rock, or Stone Child. One piece of Morley given at birth that I get to keep as long as I live. Given to me, in fact, by a man named Morley Twoyoungmen.

But I didn’t go to the school on the reserve. With many of the Stoney kids, my brother and I took the bus to Exshaw for school. And that was when I began to feel separate from the reserve. Not because I was away from the Stoney kids – I rode the bus with them every day, and half the kids in my class were Stoney. Just because I obviously wasn’t one of them, even if their parents were my parents’ friends. I didn’t speak their language, and I somehow never learned it – I somehow didn’t try, even though my Dad was and still is fluent in it. Every kid gets picked on on the school bus unless he’s the one doing the picking on, and dorky kids who stick out have it worse. It just happens that the kids picking on me were Stoney. I felt less and less like them, less and less part of the place.

And Morley – the usual name for the reserve, after the village at the heart of it with the administration building and the community hall and the health centre and the school and the fitness centre and the church – was where I lived with my family, much of the time out in the country, no other houses in walking distance, the wind whistling outside the window, just me and my brother and my parents and one channel of TV and some records and books, especially a set of encyclopedias. It’s where I was lonely, lonelier than I even knew.

My childhood was peripatetic, yes, in a way. You may remember from my note on Exshaw that we lived in Exshaw when I was little. Let me flesh this out a bit more. Before I went to school, we had lived in or near Rocky Mountain House, briefly in California and Mexico, in Calgary, in Seebe (near Exshaw, named after Charles Brewster), and in the town of Morley; when I was in grade 1 we lived in a small house in Exshaw; the next year, when I was in grade 3 (I accelerated), we lived in a larger house in Exshaw that we had had built; the following year we moved back to the reserve, to a house on the north side of it that at first didn’t even have indoor plumbing (yes, I had to use an outhouse, even in winter); the year after that, my brother and I went to a private school south of Calgary because the Exshaw school psychologist said it was a better place for gifted children, which we had turned out to be, and so we lived in Calgary; the year after that, we went to Springbank School west of Calgary and lived in the centre of Morley (i.e., the actual village); then we went back to Exshaw when I was in grade 7, and when I was in grade 8 we moved from the centre of Morley to what we called the game farm house: a large house formerly owned by Mickey Bailey, a TV wildlife guy who had owned a game farm just at the edge of the reserve. The game farm went bust, Bailey left, the Stoneys got the house, we were allowed to live in it because my dad was doing audiovisual productions for the Stoneys and the house was well set up for it. My mom taught school on the reserve. We continued to live there until I was in university in Calgary, although I actually lived with friends in Banff during the week for grades 11 and 12. The house isn’t there now. Last time I saw it it was unoccupied, vandalized, windows and walls smashed, and I could walk through the picture window and through the empty living room that had held my dad’s two thousand books and my adolescent lonely dreams; the time after that, it was a flat gravel patch – the house had been burnt down.

So, uh, there it is. And woven in that is a life spent more in the country than in the city, a life spent more away from other kids than with them. Out in the country for much of it, with wind howling through the trees outside my window. In a house late at night with blackness outside and no people and a basement that is just a place children put their terrors for keeping. And in all that, the young years when the Stoney kids had been my playmates fell away fast. Play? No. Not by junior high school.

I can’t hold a grudge against the Stoney kids who picked on me. They were just kids too. And I had quite a mouth on me, believe me. I created a fair amount of my own trouble. And many of them didn’t have really good lives. The reserve had its social problems then, and it still has many of them. And some of the kids who picked on me in grades 8 and 9 were dead before I finished my bachelor’s degree. Drunk driving. Suicide. The kid who was my greatest nemesis, the son of some of my parents’ best friends, has now been dead almost twice as long as he ever lived.

So I don’t go there a lot. Not to visit, not to remember. My life is much better now. It wasn’t a horrible life for me, don’t get me wrong. But I just don’t have a lot of desire to return to it. There are still many wonderful people there, a whole community, some of my parents’ best friends. I just don’t much feel part of it. I left it, and lived in another direction. I moved away, or it faded away, or both: all motions and emotions are relative.

But it’s still there.

Morley has, in fact, been there for a long time. The Stoneys, the Nakoda people, have of course been in and around what’s now Alberta for a very, very long time. Morley is a place that came to being with European arrivals, but it has been there as such since 1873. The McDougall family, Methodist missionaries, set up there; read in detail about them at (the link is to a PDF). They arrived not to convert the Stoneys; the Stoneys were already Christians when the McDougalls arrived, worshipping in much the same avid, revivalist way that I experienced growing up (but they also had not altogether lost their pre-Christian religious culture). The McDougalls were not the sterotype of condescending and brutal missionaries; they were avid advocates for the Indians, even if they did have some white blind spots, such as naming things in European fashion. They were liked and respected by the Stoneys.

The McDougalls built a church, which is still there, now the oldest surviving protestant church in southern Alberta and the oldest surviving building in the Bow Valley (which includes Banff and Calgary), though it’s not normally used anymore. And they built up a trading post near the church. The whole settlement was in a classic Alberta location, on the benchland well above the Bow River, with hills around unto which to lift up your eyes, and the mountains to the west. Nearly always grey and brown as far as the eye can see. And the settlement, first called Ghost River after a nearby river that joins the Bow, was renamed Morleyville after Morley Punshon, a friend of John McDougall. I believe this would have been the same William Morley Punshon who was a noted Noncomformist Methodist preacher, born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, and moved to Canada, where he did much to advance the Methodist denomination before returning to England. When the settlement and trading post relocated down into the valley, it retained the Morley part of the name that they had given it.

So Morley was, as a place and a name, brought from England as surely as about half of my genes were (well back in the past). Morley Punshon would likely have been named after Morley, West Yorkshire, near Leeds. That town is an old one; its name is a composite of the words that independently came to be Modern English moor and lea. That’s apposite: the wide open hills of southwestern Alberta are rather like the moors of Yorkshire (open grassy windswept empty spaces), and the more verdant dells near the river are readily enough called leas.

And yet somehow Morley never really noticeably affected the taste of the words moor and lea for me, not that I was aware. But it has come to flavour so strongly one more word: memory.

10 responses to “Morley

  1. I continue to be inspired by your missives.I somehow feel not so lonely when I read about another person’s frequent moves. I was, and I guess I still am, what is known as an Army Brat, and therefore can relate to having roots constantly being pulled up.

  2. James- that was a particularly moving and eloquent account. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the recent series on place names. Although I only lived in Calgary for seven years, I retain a fondness for the whole Bow Valley area. It has a unique ambience that appeals to me in a way which I cannot put into words – well, not succinctly, anyway.

  3. Wistful, melancholy, misty water-coloured memories indeed.

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  9. I learned recently from my parents that the McDougall church had just burned down.

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