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'When he smiled there was a real twinkle in his eye'
Homeless man known for recycling bottles was also inducted into NWT Sports Hall of Fame

Cody Punter
Northern News Services
Published Friday, July 26, 2013

Anyone who has lived in Yellowknife over the past 10 years would be familiar with the sight of Walter Edgi, with a bag of empty cans slung over his shoulder and a determined look on his face.

NNSL photo/graphic

Well-known homeless man Walter Edgi was often seen walking around with bags of cans slung over his shoulder. Edgi died July 12. - NNSL file photo

"He must have walked about 20 miles a day, carrying recycling and bringing it down to the other end of town," said Troy Oakoak, who works at the bottle depot. "It didn't matter if it was -40 C in the middle of winter. He'd always be here.

"He was very well liked here at the bottle shop. He was a really nice, considerate, caring kind of guy and he had nothing but the utmost respect for us. He helped clean up the streets and he helped everybody out that needed something carried or brought into the store."

Yellowknife's most recognizable recycler will no longer be seen making his daily trek out to the bottle depot as Edgi, who was originally from Fort Good Hope, was found dead on the Frame Lake Trail on July 12. Edgi was 64 years old. The coroner did not suspect any foul play in relation to his death.

Oakoak came to know Edgi over the years and was probably one of the last people to see him alive. He says he still remembers the first day he met Edgi four years ago carrying four bags of recycling

"He looked like he was struggling, so I gave him a ride to the bottle depot," said Oakoak.

In a strange twist of fate, Oakoak started working at the bottle depot just a few months later.

Oakoak said hardly a day went by that Edgi did not come to the depot.

"I saw him pretty much every day for the last four years," he said.

According to Oakoak, Edgi would occasionally joke around with staff, asking them to bet on how many cans he had brought in. Oakoak added no matter how many cans he had, Edgi would always know exactly how many he was dropping off.

"If he said there was 192 cans, there would be 192 cans," said Oakoak.

Edgi could also regularly be found at the Yellowknife's Dene Ko day shelter. Lydia Bardak, executive director of The John Howard Society, which runs the shelter, said Edgi would usually visit after his daily bottle run.

"Like any of us after we're put in a long, hard day, he came sat down and relaxed," said Bardak. "The day shelter was kind of like his living room."

Bardak said Edgi would always head straight for one of the large arm chairs at the shelter, where he would sit all afternoon. Knowing that Edgi was hard of hearing and had trouble communicating, the staff at the shelter would go out of their way to make sure his chair was always there for him whenever he got back.

"It was something that we would jokingly say in staff training - when Walter comes in and chooses a spot, make sure no one takes it away," said Bardak.

Although Edgi was certainly a well-known figure around town, he didn't have lots of interaction with people. He was hard of hearing almost to the point of being deaf. However, Oakoak said that did not prevent Edgi from communicating with staff at the depot, and it was just a matter of making an extra effort.

Edgi also had a traumatic upbringing that left him emotionally scarred, Bardak said. According to her, Edgi's mother died when he was young and that had a huge effect on his life.

Edgi spoke about his past in an interview with Yellowknifer at the day shelter in 2010. During the interview, Edgi said at the age of three his father forced him into the residential school system, where he was physically abused every day.

When he was interviewed, he said he spent a lot of time thinking about his situation.

"I've got a lot of potential, but I'm not using it," he said. "I just don't care."

However, Edgi's life was not always full of despair. According to Bardak, he attended university as a young man. When he came to the shelter, he enjoyed talking about traditional knowledge, particularly about anything to do with conservation and living on the land.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Edgi's past was that in 2012 he was inducted into the NWT Sports Hall of Fame.

According to Bardak, Edgi was part of a team of aboriginal paddlers who took part in a cross-Canada canoe race in 1967, in celebration of the country's centennial.

The Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant began on May 24, 1967 at Rocky Mountain House, Alta., and finished on Sept. 4 at Expo 67 in Montreal, Que. The race took place over 5,283 km of terrain, which were paddled and portaged in 104 days, by 100 men, paddling in six-man shifts per team.

It remains today as the longest canoe race in history, according to the Guinness World Records.

The Northwest Territories finished eighth in the race, ahead of Yukon and Nova Scotia, with a time of 547 hours, 55 minutes and 53 seconds.

Bardak says she first heard about Edgi's honour when he approached her with a small trophy after he was inducted.

"I was really surprised when he came to me with a blue box with a trophy in it. It was a glass kind of a sculpture and he asked me to hold it and keep it safe for him because out on the streets he was afraid he might lose or damage it," said Bardak.

She kept the trophy for safe keeping until Edgi died. When his sister came to collect Edgi's body, Bardak gave her the trophy and she brought it back to Fort Good Hope, where Edgi was buried last week.

The Salvation Army also hosted a memorial service for Edgi in Yellowknife on Monday.

Bardak said the service was attended by around 50 people, and that it was an emotional and fitting send-off to someone who was remembered as a hard worker and one who never complained.

Bardak said she would miss seeing Edgi sitting in his chair after a long day of collecting cans and bottles.

"When he smiled,there was a real twinkle in his eye," she said. "It's kind of sad when you walk in and he's not there."

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