.E-mail This Article

Celebrating 100 years

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 07/01) - Sarah Simon's life encompasses famous names and familiar incidents in last century in the North: Dempster and Whittaker, the lost patrol, the influenza epidemic and residential schools.

But the focus of the Fort McPherson's Centenarian's story is her longing for her father, the care of her grandmother and the love of her husband.

Sarah Simon settled herself on the narrow bed of her hospital room, her Bible close at hand on the bedside table. The walls of the tiny room in Inuvik Regional Hospital held framed photos of family, friends and people from the past.

"My father's name was Charlie Stewart; my mother was Mary Kay from Old Crow," she said as she turned the first pages of her story.

"When I turned one-and-a-half years old I was told my mother died from having a stillborn baby so my grandmother took me over ... I hardly stayed with my father but he took care of me."

Sarah's father and his brothers Kenneth, Alexander and John learned English from their Scottish father. It allowed them to work for the Hudson's Bay Company and guide police on the patrol route from Fort McPherson to Dawson.

"When I was six-years-old my father was travelling with the Gwich'in toward Dawson ... When he went to Dawson he got hired by police again ... he was away for four years. I never seen him.

Sarah had forgotten her father, but she remembered the bright spring day Charlie Stewart returned. It was 1911 and she just turned 10. Her grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins were on the trail to Arctic Red River (Tsiigehtchic) from Fort McPherson.

"And all at once I see a big dog team," Sarah said. "My grandmother was down there and she came close to them and said, 'Ahhh, my son Charlie is not dead! Is that you?'

"And he said, 'Yes mother I am Charlie' and I thought, who is this man Charlie?"

The following night all the uncles were in the tent, huddled together, holding hot, steaming cups of tea as they reacquainted themselves after Charlie's four-year absence. They were talking about Charlie Stewart's search for the lost patrol with Sgt. Dempster, now a famous story, and Dempster, a famous man.

"I sat right at the foot of my father and he was telling my uncle how he found the frozen police. I looked up and all at once I remembered my father."

Charlie left again to go work with some of his brothers in Aklavik. He had a new wife and sons and Sarah was left behind to take care of her grandmother, Catherine, whose eyesight was failing.

"I took it very hard," she said. "But I got over it. I had to look after my grandmother."

From a closet in her small room at the Inuvik hospital, Sarah pulled out a tiny blue wind-breaker jacket, and drew it around her. Medals and awards weighed the front.

She received the Order of Canada 10 years ago, but the most important pin to her was not fastened to the smooth blue nylon, but to her sweater: Life Member of the Women's Auxiliary in the Anglican Church.

"When I turned 10 my grandmother lost her sight," she said. "I used to sit on the floor and she would sit on her bed and blink and I thought, what does she mean she can't see?"

Catherine urged Sarah to do the lessons she was given by C.E. Whittaker, the Anglican priest.

Sarah loved to learn. She loved to read and taught herself more English by comparing texts English and Gwich'in Bibles by firelight.

"When I was about six years old, Gwich'in people sent their children to Hay River school (St. Peter's Mission boarding school). My grandmother asked the Anglican clergymen if I could go he told her no."

Whittaker explained that "if we send her there she will talk English and when she grows up she wouldn't like to stay with you

That's what Hay River school children do. I don't want that to happen to Sarah so I am going to teach her.'

Sarah grew up surrounded by religion and the influence of white people, but she was still afraid of the RCMP and Hudson's Bay people. When she was 19 she married James Simon, a Gwich'in man.

"All my people, they don't want me to marry in that," she said. "They wanted me to marry a white man but I was always scared of white people."

James Simon worked with the RCMP as a guide along the Dawson-Fort McPherson RCMP route. He saw Sarah at church and around town when he was in Fort McPherson. One day James said he was going away if she didn't say yes to his marriage proposal.

"I told him my people don't want you. If you really mean it come back. Come back with the (Gwich'in) people in the skin boat and then I will marry you."

James did return but Sarah wavered until her father told her quietly that he disagreed with the family. She married James on July 12, 1920.

Sarah taught James to read English. In turn, James taught Sarah how to live in the bush and drive a dog team.

They moved Aklavik, then to Old Crow and to Hay River. When they returned to the Mackenzie-Delta in 1928 they brought strength of their faith to people living through a flu epidemic.

James would preach and Sarah played the organ. They worked for the Anglican Church in Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Old Crow and Whitehorse. James was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1959. They had a strong partnership for 57 years, until James died in 1977.

Sarah Simon celebrated her 100th birthday last week in Inuvik. The town gathered to honour her simple life woven into the ever-changing fabric of the century.

She moved into the long-term care facility at the hospital in April 1999 with few precious belongings and many precious memories, sharp and unclouded.

"I am very happy here but I would love to go to McPherson,' she said. "Today everything is so different and you can't talk about tomorrow."