Helen

This interview conducted by Yesmine Elloumi and Jersey Manabat of The Lumen Series in partnership with Operation Friendship Senior’s Society.
April, 2019

No wonder you wanted to take a picture of me, I’m too good looking!

Yes, your hair piece!

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, 1964, after we had kids all over this province. We raised our kids. Now I got 27 grandchildren and 14 great grand kids 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 the 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 has 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?

“Danatay”!

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 stories, 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 get 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 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?

No, that’s it!

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Rick

This interview conducted by Yesmine Elloumi and Jersey Manabat of The Lumen Series in partnership with Operation Friendship Senior’s Society.
March, 2019

The happiest moments of my life? Hmm. Playing in high school. Sports. I was an athlete back in my days. Soccer, basketball. Played things like that. Those were the happiest moments of my life. High school. My favourite sport was soccer.

What’s your favourite sports team?

Montreal and Edmonton. For soccer, Juventus. Rome, Spain, any good team. Even Argentina, Boca Juniors. I played one game with Boca Juniors when I was 16 back in the 70s.

So you travelled to Argentina?

Well, my mother’s parents lived there. When we came to Canada in 1957 my dad’s sisters and brothers were here, right? So they sponsored us. So we came here and my mum’s parents went to Argentina with her two brothers so she was the only one here. So in 1970 my dad got tired of being treated like “Go back to your own country” and all this. There was that negative story that everyone that comes to Canada goes through that stigma. That “Go back to your country” attitude. So, he got tired of being called all that so we went to Argentina. So, we sold everything here and we moved over there.

How long did you live there?

Well for two months. He didn’t want to stay there anymore, right? I didn’t want to go cause I had my friends and everything else here. I was only 16 at the time. I didn’t want to go, but then when I got there, I didn’t want to come back!

Was this in Buenos Aires?

Buenos Aires, yes. I seen the machine guns at the Parliament building. It’s a nice country. That’s why I wanted to stay there. I had a chance to play soccer. Here in Canada it’s either football or hockey, right. But there I had a chance to play. Then we had to come back to Canada. Then we bought another house and started all over again. Got the place in Castledowns.

I also lived in Castledowns. We were basically neighbours! Did you ever feel like you wanted to go back to Argentina?

Of course.

And did you?

No. I ended up staying here. I ended up working here being a foreman. Then volunteering and then I worked over at the Mustard Seed as a caregiver and outreach and a part time pastor.

Oh, how was that?

Just like everything else. You just give what you got inside you. That’s all. I give from here *points to heart*. I speak what it is inside.

So what are you up to these days?

Uh, honestly? I’ve been lost for a few days. I just buried my mum on Saturday. And my dad is still in the hospital he’s been there since January. So the two of them were in the same place. One’s on one side one’s on the other side. My mom was 85 my dad is 88.

I’m so sorry.

That’s ok. It happens. We have to go once in a while.

How have you been coping?

It’s just like I said. I’m lost. It’s not that I see them every day I used to see them every day because they had their life and I had mine. So I just live day to day. I do my thing. Come here, volunteer, do whatever I have to do to keep myself busy. As long as I keep busy, I’m okay. Seeing that I got all these little problems that I got. COPD, gout. My legs all gave out yesterday I was on crutches all day. I couldn’t even move around. It’s like gout. It’s a touchy thing.

I mean I’m depressed and I gotta do what I gotta do inside I gotta try to be happy. I’m too serious, I’m a serious kind of guy. I am still able to open up.

I appreciate it, I really do.

Be as honest as I can be. If you ask me something else I’ll tell you the truth about something else but I think that’s enough, hey?

So then, do you have any goals? Or dreams?

My dreams are gone. My dreams were to play professional soccer. And I didn’t have a chance because I couldn’t go no where. Not here in the city you couldn’t go. I could end up being a coach I wouldn’t mind coaching a team. Stuff like that, I’d coach.

A lot of people that I’ve spoken to in the community have told me they realized that there’s a lot of change in the demographics we’re getting so many more families now and a lot of the kids want to play sports. So I was talking to a lot of parents and they’re thinking, “Damn would it be good to get subsidized leagues.”

The Boys and Girls Club, they do that. They need funding too. When I was at the Mustard Seed I had a kids program through Alberta Alternatives. It was funded by a man from Calgary who took me under his wing and he gave me a job. That’s what I had I had the kids every Tuesday I used to bring them to St. Albert from two o’clock to eight o’clock. I had the kids. We had a bus that was donated to us so we took the kids. Sometimes it was to the theatre, sometimes to the museum, bowling alley. Wherever I could fit them in, I took them there. At five or six o’clock whenever the doors were closed we had a BBQ at Borden Park. So we had some parents there that had everything prepared for us and we would get there and start munching with the kids and we would do arts and crafts. Then that got taken away because well — the funding! You’ve got Boys and Girls Club, The Big Brothers and Big Sisters, so where are we going to fit?

That sounds like such a valuable program if they could fit that into something that already existed?

That’s what it’s all about right? It’s for the kids. That’s what I’ve always told the Mustard Seed. The kids have to be involved. That’s when the parents started bringing the kids in to help out with the meals so to show the kids. You have to start with the kids. The parents already know what should be happening. It’s the kids that have to learn, to share.

In the Mustard Seed coffee area that’s where I had my couch and chairs and TV. A lot of people around here don’t have TV, so, on Saturday I had permission from whatever time to whatever time and, people came. And then I started Hockey Night Canada Trip. They showed Hockey Night Canada every Saturday. I started Safe Night for Halloween, for the kids.

So what is that? What do they do on Halloween Night?

The kids they just come over [to the Mustard Seed] and they have fun. They [parents] don’t want it over there anymore because, well, devils. That’s how they look at it. That’s how they see life. I didn’t see it like that *chuckles*. It’s a fun time for the kids! If the city has it, why can’t the inner city have it? So that’s why I started it. It was our 25th anniversary this year. The McCauley school let us have it this year and that’s where we can get it that’s where we put it. But yeah, I started that. And Meet the Street.

Meet the Street? I’ve never heard of that or been to it

They started off with $3. Before it was with nothing, but now the people that sponsor the Mustard Seed they get $3 and that’s all you get for the whole night. So you take a scenario: you’re a prostitute, you’re a drug dealer, you’re this, you’re a homeless guy. So you take that and you go around pretending you’re one of those people. And then you see how far it goes.

 So what does the money have to do with it?

Well the money like that you only have $3? Well that’s to buy yourself a coffee, to see how far you could go on $3. Or nothing.

Last question. In terms of OFSS, how has your experience been with it?

Fine, good. Not excellent. They have their problems.

Do you have one nice memory of your time here at OFSS.

See how long I have to think about it? Just being around certain people, some of the staff, that see what I see.

Which is?

Realism. But they don’t do nothing about it. They could be doing more but they don’t. Either they’re afraid of being canned for speaking up. We have all these meetings every month. What’s the point of having these meetings if nothing is done.

Let’s say you were one of these people — the staff — what would you do?

I would start programs. Education. The individuals that need help with their life. If they’re just users, if they’re just using the premises for whatever reason then it’s not a sustainable solution. These guys [OFSS Staff] can only do so much! Right? They can’t start sending people to some kind of class. Life skills. They should be sending more people to get life skills, show them what life should be all about so they can help themselves. Not to depend on other people. Someone walking around with a cane just so they can be first in line? Heh? And then they’re walking around that pool table like nothing happened! You know! You got to open your eyes. Two words in life: common sense. How are you going to teach common sense? As long as you have common sense, you’ll go far in life.

And social supports.

Ahhh social supports.

Not government ones, necessarily, I meant personal ones.

Community! But with heart. You need real people, you need people that just care about keeping their jobs. Saying what you want to hear. Isn’t it time that the good people start coming out of their shells? And I didn’t even go to school for all this. It comes from in here *points to heart*.

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Judy

This interview conducted by Yesmine Elloumi and Natalie Czuczman of The Lumen Series in partnership with Operation Friendship Senior’s Society.
Dec 20, 2018

We always try to start by asking people if there’s a moment in your life that’s really awesome or that made you really happy or that you were in awe of?

Probably the birth of my son, I would guess.

And how old is he?

54.

And is he in Edmonton?

No, he’s in Dawson Creek and he has four children.

Do you see your son often?

That’s one of my saddest parts, I haven’t seen him for 5 years. I’ve never met my grandchildren, and I’m planning on trying to open that door. Whether it will open or not, I don’t know. ‘Cause I was with some very violent men when he was little. I had him and at 4 years old I sent him back to his dad, because the fellows were scary. The safety of my child was first and foremost. And my family rejected me. And yeah, I was quite rejected, by the community also, because women didn’t do that. But all I knew was that I had to get my son out of the mess that was happening and his dad was a good man. So that’s what I did.

How did that feel? That’s a heavy question, I know. But I don’t think many people our age know how it feels to be condemned by a group. You know, you’re usually accepted by the group because you live in a bubble. But as you grow up you start to make decisions that go against the group. How did that feel?

Well, terrible. Horrendous. Especially about my son. But even prior to that I was the “bad girl” in the town. There were a few of us. But my dad being the boss of all the men in town made it doubly as shameful. Yeah it wasn’t pretty.

How did you get through that?

You know, I can honestly say that I probably really didn’t. That’s why I ended up down here, because all of that.

Do you think now you have a little bit of perspective?

Oh yes. Much. This landed me in a — because I was always saved, eh. Whether it was by a friend or by a … somebody. Somebody. Somebody was always giving me money, so I always had a way out. This time I didn’t. But my brother did come, I was in hospital for a few days, and he rejected me. Now I’m left… and I’m scared, I’m really scared. You know I’ll be 70 and I’ll …

What’s hopeful though, even a little, is that you have perspective and awareness.

Oh well thank God for that.

There are a few senior places where there are seniors who are in trouble like myself. But I went there and there were all states of brokenness. Physically and … It made me ill so I had to get out of there.

So why do you keep coming back here [OFSS]?

Because this is … it’s older people and it’s a safe haven.

Well at least I’m glad you can come here and feel safe. And I think it’s important to cultivate those spaces.

Oh absolutely. I feel very safe here. And I really need that now. I do a lot of journaling, and a lot of stuff has come out that has even surprised me. Well because I’m in a different space in my life now.

Are there any people that have been allies for you here?

Oh yes plenty. Well this gal here *points to Giselle*, she’s at the Hope. And I met her a long time ago at WEAC, Women’s Emergency Accommodation. There’s been a couple. It’s comforting to have a little bit of something.

So how did you start reading cards?

Well there was a woman in north Edmonton and I befriended her. Her name was “just Mary” — that’s what she called herself— and she lived in a big beautiful house. And somehow and I grasped it from there and I started reading.

So it’s tarot cards?

No just ordinary playing cards.

Can you do it for us?

Well… I really don’t [feel comfortable]. Sorry.

No don’t you talked about how the right energy has to be there!

I’m all buggered up right now, I’m all over the map.

Can you explain the process?

People choose cards and they represent different things and eventually the personality comes out. And then eventually the person starts talking, and the cards correlate with what the person is saying.

So you must be able to read people really well?

Well they tell me that I am. I’m a channel I guess, they tell me. It’s what I’ve been told. I’m not saying that it always, always works. Some people never open up. They’re just shut and that’s it. If I’m not aware of my own — duding reflexology or reiki or any of that — you can’t get any of your energy in there or you’re dead in the water. You can’t do it. Because you’re taking on the other person’s energy now, plus your own, and you’re dead. You have to put a — some put a white circle around themselves… there’s a bunch of methods, whatever works for them.

That’s such a good metaphor for life [and relationships], because you can’t give someone all of your energy, you need to have your own barriers. Or else you get lost.

Oh absolutely. Even you girls interviewing people, you have to be aware. The word “closed” isn’t the word I’m looking for, but you can pick up other people’s energies and you can become very ill. So dealing with people you have to be very aware of your own stuff. And if something is cropping up you have to deal with it. Because inevitably you’re working with people, you’re going to get something. Something is going to trigger something else. So you have to be fully aware.

And I think that takes knowing yourself fully.

Absolutely, you have to know is triggering for you and not push it aside. Because you can become very ill with all sorts of things.

Well hopefully you can get back to practicing soon. We really hope that for you.

Oh thank you girls, I hope so too.

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Bob Whyte

This interview conducted by Yesmine Elloumi and Natalie Czuczman of The Lumen Series in partnership with Operation Friendship Senior’s Society.
Dec 20, 2018

We always like to start by asking people to talk about their happiest moment of their life

I guess there was a sense of aw when I was at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. I came to the falls and the animals were so enormous, the crocodiles were the biggest I’ve ever seen in my life, huge hippos and almost invisible flies that could get into your eyes and cause you blindness. But, that part of the Nile I saw my first hippo walking along the bottom of the Nile. When I first came to the Nile, after passing a sign saying, “Elephants have right of way on the road.” Now, no one is going to challenge an elephant but the signs were needed because there were elephants around.

How did you end up in Uganda?

I had left Canada on a trip for four months as a delegate to a conference in the near East and after that while I was over there I wanted to learn more about my own Western European culture so I decided to spend a year and three months in Europe, which I did. And then I felt I was not ready to come back to Canada yet but I didn’t know where to go — and the answer came in a dream! The dream was to go to Africa. And so I went to Marseille, France to take a maritime boat towards Reunion but the boat was full so I had to wait one month and I got a seat on the next boat, but then the military displaced me! And I’m glad they did because that boat sunk and a lot of people lost their lives! So I took the third boat and that took me all the way down to past Egypt and down past Djibouti and then to Tanganyika where I left the boat and visited there a while before going over to Zanzibar and then up to Kenya and then to Uganda and that’s how I got to Uganda!

What pushed you to go and leave for a year?

When I was young, growing up, even before going to school I had a sense of some kind of a path that I was following and being a little boy about four years old they said “What are you going to be when you grow up?”. It’s a common question. My answer was: “I’m going to the school that is after school.” I didn’t even know the word for university. So, I knew what path I was going to and then I was working in a farmer’s field in Saskatchewan and the farmer asked me, “What are you going to do when you finish school?” I was in grade 11. I said, “Well, I think that I’m going to university. I don’t know how but I I’m going to go to university.” And he said, “What are you going to take?” and I said, “I don’t know. Law, I guess?” And it came out of nowhere but that turned out I did well in four subjects: music, geology, and law, and one other subject and then when I was in grade 12 my English teacher was married to a lawyer and he took me into his office and he told me about all the good work he was doing for the Boy Scouts — and that caught my interest. So, I applied to go to university and I got enough scholarships so that I went year by year.

Did you go to the University of Alberta?

The first two years at the University of Alberta, then UBC, then two more years at the University of Alberta. I got a scholarship to go from university to another and then to go back. That’s what that scholarship was for, to go to a different university and get ideas and bring them back to the first university and the idea that I brought to save a lot of students money on books by having a book exchange. It was at UBC but not at U of A and I brought it back to U of A and it saved a lot of students a lot of money, I bet.

It still exists, we still have book exchanges!

That’s the one I’m talking about! I guess I’m the author for the Alberta one!

And then you worked as a lawyer?!

Yes, but don’t tell anybody because too many people will ask me for free legal advice and I’m not in practice right now! *Laughs*.

We also wanted to ask everyone about their experience at OFSS.

Well when I came back to Canada after leaving for a four month’s trip but coming back seven years later instead *laughs*. I didn’t know where to start and so I went to the Boyle Street Co-op and the lady there in charge of housing suggested I go to OFSS. So I came to speak to a housing officer and she took me to one place that I didn’t like because it was too dark but then took me to another place, which I liked! So, I moved into there and I so appreciated OFSS and their attitude to things that I wanted to help them and at that point in my life I was stronger than I am now so I did a lot of volunteering. I’ve been coming here for I think this is my 19th or 20th year. It’s because I feel that there is a lot of good value that this organization brings to our community and I’m willing to be a helper, an assistant to them in serving a lot of needy people. In particular, there are some people that are hard to house. They will deliberately let things run over because they feel it’s some way of expressing themselves in their great freedom although they’re destroying their own home. And yet, these people need help. They’re part of us and OFSS is willing to help them and because of that, I’m willing to help them.

Do you come here every day?

No. I try to come here Monday to Friday. I do not want to come here normally on Saturdays and Sundays. I meet a lot of people here, people that have become my friends. I like these people. I feel part of them. I want to help them. I feel this part of my life. Part of the reason why I am here in my life at this stage in my life is to be the help I can. It makes for a fulfilling life. I feel good about what I’m doing here.

Is there one thing that you like to do on the weekends?

A very harmless, tame thing. I like to read! How can you get more harmless than that?

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