February 19, 2019
Helen was the first person we interviewed that Tuesday and for good reason- her smile lit up the space she occupied.
No wonder you wanted to take a picture of me, I’m too good looking!
Yes your hairpiece!
Oh this? I just curled it this morning.
First question we always ask: what is the happiest moment of your life?
Um, my happy life was when I was younger. I used to do a lot of housework, a lot of changing, cleaning, and I used to live in an old fashioned way. It was lots of fun. My younger days I was living with my grandmother, went to school at Residential School, come back, I have to learn to speak my own Native tongue and I’m from Yellowknife, NWT. So, I moved here with my husband and years later, in 1964, after we had kids all over this province. We raised our kids. Now I got 27 grandchildren and 14 great-grandkids and they’re scattered all over the country. Some in Saskatchewan, some in BC, some in Alberta and they’re all over the place I don’t get to see them much but, someday I will!
So when you went to Residential School you got to go back home?
Yeah I came back home, lived with my grandmother. I went to school for 8 years and then four years at a day school. Then I moved to BC! I worked all over the place. As a chambermaid, as a cook helper, and I had a good life.
You’re the first person I’ve spoken to in my interviewing who have attended residential schools. Did you enjoy it there?
I enjoyed it but some of them are just sad you know the way they treated us. Like my grandmother is better at looking after any kids because she was a good grandmother. My mom died when I was 2 years old so I was in Child’s Council for TB for three years. They flew me from Yellowknife to Edmonton. I stayed there till I got better then they flew me back and I was living with different people like foster parents and I was moved around then finally the government got after my grandmother, forced her to look after me. If she didn’t look after me I would have been raised in a white community. My grandmother looked after me pretty good, she taught me a lot of things.
Oh okay! Tell me some of the best things she taught you.
She taught me how to make dry meat and cook and clean white fish and clean the caribou meat, clean the ducks, everything! I lived with her in the bush, hunting for muskrats, cleaning the skins and all that, all kinds of things, it was beautiful!
Wow, I love it! Look at the smile on my face! It’s great! What was your mother tongue?
My mother tongue is Dogrib.
How do you say hello in Dogrib?
Do you like this job? The interviewing?
Oh I love it. (tells Helen why the lumen series started).
So, how long have you been here?
I moved here in 1992 from Prince George, BC. I lived there for thirteen years so wherever I worked, I had a job, I stayed there for a while. And then move on, keep moving, finally, I settled down here in Edmonton.
And do you like it?
I like it. I like that in Edmonton I do a lot of volunteering here. I volunteered since 2004. I still volunteer: I make sandwiches, I cut potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, whatever they have in the kitchen. I’ve been volunteering for a long time with them [OFSS].
Do you volunteer anywhere else?
No, just here [OFSS] because it is senior-specific. Now, I just celebrate my birthday on December 15, 1947, I was born in Fort Resolution, NWT. I just turned 71!
And you’re looking great! You’re full of life.
Because I quit drinking four years ago! And I quit smoking one year ago. When I got sick a year ago, I had a bleeding ulcer and I just about died. My ex-boyfriend was taking care of me and I told him, “Call the ambulance I have to go to the hospital.” I got there in time they had a bed for me and when they got me in bed they had all the IV’s set up. I was just wired all over. They said you know Helen if you didn’t show up, you would be dead. I’m better now but I went back a couple times. Now, I eat better, I gained a little bit of weight because I had lost up 118 pounds! Now I weigh about 125 pounds. I feel good but my stomach when I eat food I get so much gas. I’m allergic to milk, I can’t have milk or cheese and I LOVE CHEESE!
Did you develop the allergy?
I got that quite a while ago. I’m on lactose tolerance pills.
Oh yes I have a lot of friends that are lactose intolerant and they drink their pill too so they can still have their cheese.
… I still get a lot of gas. (giggles). But I love eating I love doing things. I was so busy yesterday oh! I was cleaning all my ornaments, washing all my artificial flowers, I just throw them in the tub and wash them all with laundry soap. On Sunday, the caretaker said we’re gonna spray your place for bedbugs. So they’re going to do that Thursday morning. My neighbour got it next door, she got it and passed it down to me.
Oh, that’s horrible. At least they’re treating it.
Yeah, but I got a lot of work this weekend. Put all the ornaments back, ohhh so much!
In one week you’ll be bed bug-free and a clean home! Think about that! Tell us about your beautiful hairpiece, because we were really attracted to it!
Oh! I bought this in Yellowknife! I bought two! And they were $75 each! It’s worth it. They got a little souvenir store, that’s where I got it from.
What do you think about this place?
It’s okay. For a while, we weren’t getting any entertainment but now we get bingo, we get crosswords, you know? Watch TV, get the pool table. You know.
What do you like so much about OFSS? The people? The programs? The housing?
The people are good. Some get kind of grumpy, but it’s just the minor details. We all get along really good, just like a big family. And we all talk to each other, sometimes we get mad at each other but that passes.
What’s one of the things you think OFSS should improve on?
They should work on people that should get along, not argue on small detail, should just accept what we have. You know, we get treated well here. We get the best food, we get the best clothes, items, we get entertainment by other people coming in and we get to meet, you know, different people. I don’t like them when they get mad because they fight each other and that’s no good for other people and it gets really irritating. I like everybody gets treated equal. Not criticize each other! I like when people get along with each other, just like one big family. Because I talk to everybody, I’m not shy. I got a good personality and I show who I am and I let them be who they are and that’s the way we should be treated. Treat the best in each other and treat good with everybody. That’s how we should get along today. Not to be greedy, not to be selfish, you know. I like people get treated equal and get the best. And we love each other and we show we are good friends, that’s what I want!
The people that know you probably know you feel that way and so they act that same way when they are with you. I wanted to ask you one more thing because I was really impressed with how you quit drinking four years ago and quit smoking a year ago. So I wanted to ask you: did you connect with a service to help? You can choose to not answer this, but: Was it an addiction or no?
No, no I just quit on my own. I didn’t need no help, I quit the smoking, I just didn’t bother!
You didn’t experience withdrawal or anything like that?
I never did smoke much because I only started when I was 27 so I wasn’t much into smoking because I had small kids and I looked after my family well.
Right, so you didn’t really have space for that!
No, I didn’t have time for that! When I started drinking with my husband, I got to the point where I can’t drink with my husband or kids no more. I said, “To hell with it!” and I just quit. But I asked the good Lord, like Jesus, to help me to be strong. I said I want to quit now, and I did. After when I quit, I saw Virgin Mary, was right beside my bed. And I seen the good Spirit with her to help me to be strong and I just quit like that. I never even missed it or nothing, just like I never drank before. When you ask the good Lord for help, he will always be there for you.
A lot of the people I spoke to, they also told me about how they really turned towards religion much more and it really helped them find strength in achieving the goals they had.
My daughter went through it too, eh? She used to drink, she used to smoke marijuana, all that. She just quit everything too. She quit drinking, she quit the drugs, she quit smoking, and now she raised two kids. She’s doing good.
I’m going to ask you something a bit different. With you being the first person to talk a lot more about your grandma and learning about your Indigenous culture, what do you think you do now? Do you talk to many other Indigenous people and talk to them about your culture?
I do talk to a lot of my friends and my daughter. She doesn’t want to listen to me but the other ones they will. I give a lot of people advice and I hope they listen to me and they understand how I feel about them and about their side of the story too. I got lots of good friends.
So would you say your grandma is your number one role model?
She is. She is number one to ME! She took care of me and she done everything for me.
What is your best memory of you and your grandma?
Oh, I love going with her when her boyfriend came and got her with the canoe. With him, we went to the cabin and this guy he had a little garden. I seen the garden, I went and looked at it, I sat in the garden, I was eating those green peas. I was sitting there and her and her boyfriend they talked together, so I left them alone. That was my best time being with them.
Do you have anything else you want to talk about?
H: No, that’s it!