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A remarkable woman remembered

Lynn Lau
Northern News Services

Fort McPherson (Nov 12/01) - It was among the largest gatherings Fort McPherson had ever seen. In the biggest room in town -- the gymnasium of Chief Julius School, with chairs collected from the classrooms, church and rec hall, people came to celebrate the life of Sarah Simon.

NNSL Photo

Mourners gather at the grave site of Sarah Simon, outside the Anglican church in Fort McPherson. - Lynn Lau/NNSL photo

The respected Gwich'in elder died Nov. 2 at the age of 100. More than 300 people packed in to the gymnasium, some arriving on charters from as far away as Alaska, Whitehorse, and Yellowknife.

In a eulogy delivered by former MP Wally Firth, Jijuu (grandma) Simon was remembered as a strongly religious, independent woman who always knew what she wanted and was always active.

"When we lose a wonderful person like Sarah, we lose a bit of ourselves," said Firth. "She did so very much, I don't know where we can start or where we finish."

Firth, who is now 65, was among the 86 babies that Simon delivered in the years before permanent nursing stations were established in the communities. Simon possessed an incredible memory, so sharp, it was said she could recall all 86 birthdays of every infant she delivered -- if not the exact day, then at least the month and year. "She remembered, because she was there," Firth said.

Simon studied the Bible and wrote in her journal daily. Her memories and writings have allowed many to recover their family histories.

For several decades, she and her husband Rev. James Simon, ministered for the Anglican church in various Northern communities. They had three children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Despite early misfortunes, the family grew large as the Simons adopted several orphans and looked after children whose parents were busy on the land.

"They were such wonderful people, they were receiving visitors all day, every day," Firth recalled.

At the Inuvik Regional Hospital, where she lived the last four years of her life, Simon continued to draw many visitors.

Twelve-year-old Kendra Sittichinli and two of her friends started visiting last year with Girl Guides. After the first few visits, they started going on their own.

"She learned us how to knit and sing songs in Gwich'in," said Sittichinli. Simon would also tell stories about Sittichinli's grandfather, Lazarus, who died before the girl was born.

Rebecca Francis, 65, spent three years living with the Simons when, as a teenager, her own grandmother died. She remembered how Simon would do men's work because she wanted to allow her husband more time to study the Bible. "I learned a lot of things from her," Francis said. "I'm not afraid to go out there and tie up dogs, or if there's no wood, and my husband's not available, I'll go and get wood myself. Because when I stayed with her, that's what we learned to do. We'd help with everything. All these things she taught me."

Simon's niece Edith Josie of Old Crow, Yukon, was one of several people who stood up to speak after the ceremony. Josie, 79, recalled how in 1960, when the Whitehorse Star was looking for someone to write about life in Old Crow, Simon encouraged her to do it. Simon would help her edit the work before it was sent to the paper. Josie still writes the monthly column to this day.

Bishop Larry Robertson, who presided over the ceremony, spoke of a woman devoted to her faith and the care of others. He told this story: "One of the elders who was about her age was dying in long term care and I had been called in. They just were waiting for her to die. Sarah toddled over to the bed side, got close to her ear, and started to sing hymns in Gwich'in. The next thing we knew, there were two voices singing."

All day, in private and public, people recounted stories like these. After the service and the community feast that followed, elders Jane Charlie Sr. and Elizabeth Greenland stood to sing one of Simon's favourite Gwich'in hymns. Their voices rang strong, silencing the crowd.

"I know my auntie can hear me," Charlie said. "Thank you."