My parents were temporarily living in Seattle, Washington when I was born; six weeks later, they returned to Canada. The official at the border knew my father and said, “Is this the new baby, Bert?” I guess my dad answered in the affirmative and nobody bothered to register me in Canada.
When I started school in Victoria, I had to adopt the Welsh nationality of my father, although I had never set foot Wales. “Canadians” didn’t exist until 1947. So, prior to that date, all Canadian schoolchildren were the nationality of their fathers.
When I applied for my first passport in l960, I discovered I was an American (even though I had married a Canadian and voted in Canada). So, with many letters from my parents and friends verifying they had known me from birth and, indeed, I had lived in Canada all my life, I became a Canadian through domicile. I received a numbered Certificate of Citizenship and became official.
In 1970, we moved to northern B.C., and I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful First Nations lady named Agnes Sutton. She lived in a small village called Meanskinisht or “Cedarvale” (the English name), on the bank of the Skeena River.Agnes was in her mid-80s, at that time, but as a girl had been seconded by an Anglican clergyman who was proselytizing the Native population. “He meant well,” said Agnes who washed, ironed, cleaned, fetched and carried for the man of God from dawn to dark for no money. She held no grudge.
Agnes was a member of the Quakers, the Society of Friends, and took her religion very seriously. She was always ready to give her time and nurture anyone in need. In the late 1970s, Agnes was admitted to the hospital in Terrace, B.C. with pneumonia. Her doctor, our family friend, phoned me and said Agnes was well enough to be discharged, but it was winter and he knew she only had an outhouse and no running water in her immaculately clean home.
At that time, Iona Campagnolo was the MLA for the Skeena Riding. I approached Iona and told her of Agnes’ plight, and asked if she could help. Iona, who knew and admired Agnes as one of her constituents, said that she couldn’t aid anyone individually, but if I could arrange an event of some kind, she would happily attend as the Guest of Honour. The WATER FOR AGNES SUTTON fundraising dinner was born.
It is amazing how people come together to support a worthy cause. I found that Agnes was loved up and down the Skeena River. Although never a mother herself, she fostered over 40 children. She had a huge vegetable garden from which she supplied neighbours with food. She was a wonderful teacher and she taught me many things, including how to gut a salmon, although she was a little piqued when I was squeamish. “Gumshiwa,” she would say disparagingly as she took the knife from me and showed me, yet again, how to do the job. Gumshiwa was the word for white people in her language of Ghetíksan, which, according to Agnes, meant, “bleached driftwood.”
The DINNER FOR AGNES SUTTON became the social event of that year. *Totem Press* in Terrace printed the invitations, with a dripping water faucet on the front, for free.
The clergyman of the Anglican Church in Cedarvale offered us the use of the church basement for our dinner. The women of the village prepared enough food for an army. The Co-op store in Terrace supplied all the necessary water pipes. The School District gave permission for water to be taken from their own source. The police chief of Terrace came to collect and protect the monetary offerings placed by guests in a traditional “Bent Box.” (Bent boxes were fashioned from one piece of cedar and originally used to transport oolichan grease from the coast to the Northern Interior over the “grease trails,” for trade with inland people).
Anyone who thought they were someone vied for an invitation. Altogether, over 100 guests from near and far attended. Iona kept to her promise and attended as the Guest of Honour. Enough money was raised to not only install running water, but also build a whole bathroom in Agnes’ home, with dollars to spare.
Since Agnes’ smokehouse had been destroyed by fire, when I told her we had enough money left over to rebuild her smokehouse, she was overjoyed! She said, “Indian don’t always have toilet, but Indian always have smokehouse.”
After Iona had spoken eloquently that night, Agnes stood up and thanked everyone and then she turned to me and thanked me personally. She then bestowed on me the honour of adopting me into her tribe. Agnes was a Frog. She presented me with a lovely silver bracelet with a frog motif on the outside and my Indian name inscribed on the inside, Al-U Gueff Sa Ya, which means “To Walk in Open Places Without Fear.”
And that’s how I became a Frog.
JULY 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER
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