Mary John. June 16, 1913 – September 30, 2004
Eulogy delivered by Colleen Erickson
Mary John was born in Lheidli on June 16, 1913, the daughter of Anzel Quaw. She grew up here in Saik’uz, with her mother and stepfather Johnny Paul and siblings: Mark, Bella, Melanie, and Alec.
Mary’s childhood was marked by hard times. Most memorable to her was surviving the 1918 Spanish flu when she was five. Mary recalls both her parents being ill – her mother was nine months pregnant; Mary had to boil water for her parents and she could barely reach the top of the stove. Mary attended the Residential School in Fort St. James until Lejac Residential School opened in 1922.
Mary left Residential School at age fourteen and at sixteen married Lazare John. Together they had twelve children: Winnie, Ray, Helen, Florence, Johnny, Charles, Bernice, Ernie, Gordie, Doris, Arthur & Shirley. In the native tradition, Chester, Bernie and Rosa were also raised and loved as their own.
Even though motherhood kept her very busy, Mary still took jobs outside the home. She and Lazare worked at Binche Mines cutting wood, and they also pulled stumps for farmers around Vanderhoof, the riverside campsite, and the Vanderhoof airport.
Mary worked for many years at the St. John’s Hospital in Vanderhoof. Her son Ernie remembers he often used to accompany her on the long walk into town. One winter the road was very icy so they tied binder twine on their feet for traction and left at 3 am to get to work by 6 am.
Ernie fondly remembers his mom as a cattle rancher. She always wore an old coat they called her “Cow Coat.” One Easter Sunday they got all dressed up for Church and Mary said “Just a minute, I’ll just check on the cows.” The cows all scattered in terror because they didn’t recognize her “all dolled up” in her Easter finery!
Mary’s strength and consideration of all others shone through on many occasions. She was a midwife and delivered many children. When she went into labour with her daughter Bernice, she didn’t want to bother anyone because they were in Church and so she delivered Bernice by herself!
Mary had a special relationship with her two daughters Helen and Winnie. Neither of them had children so they were able to spend a lot of time with her and Lazare. Helen and Winnie helped Mary spoil all of the grandchildren. They also traveled with Mary, bringing her to visit family in Sechelt, and to attend many different meetings.
Throughout her life, Mary always encouraged her children to make little improvements in whatever they did. Her daughter Flo carried on her mother’s interest in crafts. Flo remembers that when she brought her work to show her mother, Mary would inevitably take it and make “little improvements” on it. It was only last Christmas that Mary told Flo that her work was expert. Flo always said that that was what Mom was about, “little improvements”.
Mary had a great sense of humor and there were many times she had people in stitches, even during church!
Mary was also a friend to all. As one friend put it, Mary saw the kernel of good in every individual and she had a special gift of drawing it out of them with her love and encouragement. Mary was always a gracious and gentle woman.
Mary was a dedicated mother and grandmother and friend, but it did not end there. She had a great love for her people and was determined to improve the quality of life in native communities.
There was a time when there were “No Indians Allowed” signs in the windows of businesses, but she never allowed racism to taint her with bitterness. As noted in her book, “Besides, we had no money to spend in the restaurant, and even if our pockets had been full of dollar bills, we weren’t allowed to enter any of the cafes in Vanderhoof. Natives knew that if they walked into a restaurant they would be asked to leave, and if they refused, the police would be called. When I was a little girl this didn’t bother me – I wouldn’t have traded the campfire, and the willows and the sounds of the horses grazing for the most expensive dining room in the world!” Mary kept this positive attitude through many similar circumstances in her life. She will be remembered for her dignified and ethical behavior in every circumstance.
Mary’s life of ambassadorship also began in these years. Carrier protocol taught Mary to always put aside your problems and put forward your personal best, especially when outside your village. This teaching carried her into a prominent leadership role and she became an example to all. Mary became involved with the BC Homemakers Association in 1942 and was the first President of the Saik’uz chapter and later became the district president.
In the 1950s the Saik’uz reserve was troubled by poverty and many children were being lost to the welfare system. It was here that Mary first met Bridget Moran and began a lifelong partnership and friendship. As a result of their hard work, a Welfare Committee was set up and the meetings were held in Mary’s living room – every effort was made to place children in aboriginal foster homes.
Mary firmly believed in preserving the Yinka Dene or Carrier culture. Mary was one of the first native educators and she taught language and culture in St. Joseph’s School in the 1970s. In addition, she taught conversational Carrier for adults and medical terminology to the staff at St. John’s Hospital. Mary became involved in the Yinka Dene Language Institute and worked on the Saik’uz Children’s Dictionary and other teaching materials as well as serving as a director.
Mary never gave up using the language and she was tireless in her devotion to language preservation. Even recently she would work on language documentation with linguist Dr. Bill Poser – Bill said that Mary would even tire him out! On the other hand, Mary lamented that she couldn’t talk about Bill in Carrier anymore because she had taught him so well! Mary made by far the largest contribution to the Saik’uz Dictionary which now numbers over eight thousand entries. Mary’s attention to detail was meticulous even though the work was tedious requiring repeated pronunciation of each word and lengthy discussions of meanings. Mary even had to spend long hours with Dr Poser in the boiling hot sun translating syllabics from gravestones in the Saik’uz graveyard because she believed this work was important. Words cannot express her contribution to the preservation of the Saik’uz dialect.
By 1978 Mary was recognized as Citizen of the Year in Vanderhoof for her work with her family including helping them create businesses of their own, service to Stoney Creek and other First Nations communities, counselling, revitalizing Carrier culture, and working in Vanderhoof with the School and Hospital. Mary was the first native person who received this honor.
In 1980 Mary, along with her daughter Helen, Celina John, and Veronica George, established the Stoney Creek Elders Society. Mary used her gift for mobilizing the community into action for a worthy cause – she always said the Potlatch House was built on sweat equity because she, Veronica George and other elders were down on their knees picking roots to clear the site – it’s hard to imagine people in their sixties doing this hard work. Throughout the 1980s, the Elders’ Society became a vehicle for economic, social and political progress.
The elders started an alternate school in the basement of the Kindergarten where students were taught academics and the elders taught the culture. The Potlatch House became a key gathering place; the Elders eventually built the Campground – they envisioned the youth having a business to run and the business would give them pride in their culture and heritage.
Mary taught many young people how to sing traditional songs. In addition, everyone loved to hear Mary sing hymns in church because she had such a beautiful voice. She loved to sing right to the end of her life.
In 1988, Mary became even more renowned with the publication of her book, Stoney Creek Woman. Mary’s invitations to teach multiplied. Many students at CNC and UNBC fondly remember Mary and Bridget sharing their collaborative work in the classroom. Mary was even invited to appear on Sesame Street after her book was published.
Mary especially loved to teach the little children and she taught in elementary schools throughout the region for many years. In the 1970s Mary and Sister Paul started a dance group with the young people of Saik’uz. Many of these young adults danced for Mary when she received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2003. Any young person who wanted to learn was welcome in Mary’s smokehouse. Her patience was endless even though her salmon often ended up in ribbons on the poles!
Even though Mary firmly believed in preserving traditions, she was a visionary who always saw a better future for our young people. Mary used to watch TV shows about business and think about implementing them in Saik’uz. She served on many economic development committees such as Neduchun. She set an example through the sale of her own arts and crafts – Mary made beautiful moccasins, mukluks and other native crafts. This home business provided her with financial independence into her old age and she always encouraged women to keep these traditions alive.
Mary was a truly remarkable woman and she continued her work not only within the native community, but she also built bridges of understanding between cultures.
In the 1980s, Mary began her liaison work with the RCMP. She invited the staff to her fishing camp for a barbecue every summer. Mary’s gentle wisdom was greatly appreciated at the many cross-cultural workshops she was asked to teach. Eventually she served on the Commanding Officer of E Division’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee. She was a founding member of this provincial body.
By this time, many First Nations were inviting Mary to teach them how to be effective advocates and to support them in their political and social efforts. Many of you will remember seeing Mary sitting at meetings all day and into the evenings even though she was well into her eighties by this time. Mary never ever left a meeting until it was over and she always repeated her work ethic, “You never leave until the business is done.”
Mary’s devotion to family, friends and community lasted right to the end. She never ever turned anyone away – even after she had a stroke, people continued to sit in her living room, drink tea, and learn from her.
In 1997 Mary received the Order of Canada for outstanding service to her community. This was a fitting legacy for a Carrier woman who championed everything from cultural preservation to social reform to native rights. All of us here today have benefited from the brave and selfless efforts of Stoney Creek Woman, Saik’uz Ts’eke.
In closing, we have chosen an excerpt from Stoney Creek Woman of Mary’s own words which encapsulate her vision and her dream for our people.
We must keep our language, our culture, so that, even in Canada, we can still feel that we have our own country. And while we preserve these things, it is my hope that some day we will also have reserves where the young can be educated, where there is employment for all and where my people will choose to live, and work, and finally, to die and rest in peace.
We must keep her dream alive.
Read more in this book:
Stoney Creek Woman
The Story of Mary John