Category Archives: People

Through An Artist’s Lens

Harvey Donahue, artist
Harvey Donahue, artist

I’m convinced local Similkameen artist Harvey Donahue views the world through a very different lens than most of us. Where we might see only an abandoned house bleached by the sun, or an ancient, decrepit logging truck left to rust in the woods, Harvey is likely to see unique beauty. For him these relics of the past could be worthy of an honoured place on his canvas. “Old houses can be beautiful,” he told Linda and me. “When I see one, I’m inspired to paint.”

Photo of Bill Robinson's cabin, taken Jan. 2015
Photo of Bill Robinson’s cabin, taken Jan. 2015

I first heard from Harvey almost 2 years ago after I wrote about Bill Robinson’s iconic cabin along the Sumallo River in Manning Park. “I painted that cabin and the outbuilding before they fell into disrepair,” he said. “I’d like to send you a copy of the original.” That was the beginning of a phone relationship until he visited our home two weeks ago. On that occasion he surprised us with the framed, original painting of the snow bedecked Robinson cabin and outbuilding. For some reason known only to himself, he very generously presented it to Linda and myself. It is likely the best representation of that scene in existence today. It’s a gift we prize highly.

Being raised in Lac Ste. Anne, a Metis village in Alberta, very likely played a key role in the formation of how Harvey views the scenes and people around him. Now age 80, he retains vivid memories and images of those early years. He recounted them as though talking about individual mental snapshots from his past. “I started trapping when I was about 7 or 8. When my uncle moved away, I took over his trapline. Mostly I trapped weasels and sent the skins to a company in Edmonton. There was an annual pilgrimage of Metis people to our village. Some Cree came too. I attended school only until I completed grade 10,” he said. “Metis youths were encouraged to drop out after grade 8. We were called half breeds. I grew up feeling shame at being Metis. I used to tell people I was French. I remember that my dad had a few cows, some chickens and a garden.”

Although there wasn’t money for art lessons, he began painting at age 10. “When I was 14,” he remembers, “I painted a mermaid luring a ship onto the rocks. I still have that painting.”

His negative view of the Metis heritage began to shift at about age 20. “I decided I should be responsible for my existence. I began studying my Metis heritage and learned that my grandfather Gabriel Balcourt supported Louis Riel. He is listed on a plaque naming supporters.”

Harvey’s first wife was Metis and they had 4 children before she passed away. As he matured, his appreciation of the Metis heritage blossomed. “I became proud of being Metis,” he said. After moving to the Lower Mainland, he started a Metis organization and built it to 500 members. He is gratified that it is still functioning.

Harvey Donahue with Metis flag in the background
Harvey Donahue with Metis flag in the background

Harvey believes the Metis heritage shaped him. His life experiences, including the early discrimination, seem to have given him an understanding that we should not be quick to discount or discard our past. I sensed he has come to a deep realization that a historic structure or event represents what was important to people at an early time and place. It tells us about their culture, values and life experiences. It’s a connection with our past.

When I see a scene that is likely to disappear, I take a picture and paint it,” he said. “I paint heritage scenes so they won’t be lost to the next generation.”

As an example he told us about one painting that depicts an old truck standing near a grove of trees. “Shortly after I completed that painting,” he told us, “the trees were cut down.” Sometimes he adds something to a painting. One of my favourite scenes is of the one way bridge in Princeton. He placed his own pickup truck in this picture.

Painting by Harvey Donahue of Princeton Bridge, with his Dodge pickup in the foreground.
Painting by Harvey Donahue of Princeton Bridge, with his Dodge pickup in the foreground.

Harvey views the Similkameen Valley with the watchful, observant eyes of an artist. “When the sun rises in the east,” he said, “you see subtle colours in the west.” He paused and then added, “art and music are important. They help us appreciate life, the past and the present, that exists all around us.”

Len Roberts’ Vision Changed Lives


Len Roberts at Camp Colonial Lodge
Len Roberts at Camp Colonial Lodge

When I received the message early last week that my friend Len Roberts had made his final exit from the stage of life, it was as though my personal world shifted on its axis. He was one of those rare, larger than life individuals whose words and actions shape the lives of people around them.

I first met Len when I applied for a job with the One Way Adventure Foundation, then headquartered in Surrey. He wanted me to receive training in the organization’s wilderness skills program in Hedley. On June 30, 1974, he picked me up at my home in rural Abbotsford. During the 3 hour drive he introduced me to the history, philosophy, and methods of the Foundation.

Jean and I had a booth at the Cloverdale Fair, promoting Bowron Lakes Canoe Expeditions,” he began. “A probation officer asked if we’d take a group of their young clients. We agreed and for 9 days we had a bunch of devious, rowdy teens in the wilderness, away from the city and their friends. When we returned with the kids still alive, the probation officer invited us to develop a program for their toughest cases. Soon 20 or more untamed youths were arriving at our home every morning and we began noticing our neighbours anxiously peering through slits in closed curtains. This convinced us we needed to get the kids away from our neighbourhood.”

The Roberts established the One Way Adventure Foundation and bought 3 acres with a house and small barn. That was the beginning of an effective and fairly unique approach to working with teens who were no longer welcome in their own community, school or home.

In time they realized they required a more remote setting, so they purchased Camp Colonial on the outskirts of Hedley. They added vehicles, canoes, back packing equipment and more. This enabled workers to take students away from familiar street haunts and associations. It permitted students to participate in adventures that developed an awareness of their potential. It also fostered relationships between students and workers.

That first summer, under the leadership of a wilderness skills instructor, my 5 boys and I canoed the Bowron Lakes circuit. We were bitten by horse flies and hordes of mosquitoes, felt the pain of canoe yokes digging into our shoulders while portaging between lakes, paddled all day in rain, and took turns doing bear watch at night. In the evenings around a campfire, I read to them from Jack London’s wonderful book,”Call of the Wild”. On the 9th day when we landed on the last shore, the students spontaneously formed a victory circle. As predicted by Len’s teaching, it had been a relationship and character building adventure.

Throughout those years Len and Jean were a potent team. Len had the vision and unassuming charisma that attracted workers. He looked for individuals willing to descend into the trenches and do what was needed. During my time, 2 former students who had completed their program returned and entered our one year training for new staff. Both became valued leaders in the organization. Sometimes less educated staff demonstrated a wonderful sensitivity that allowed them to develop strong bonds with the students. Again and again, Len reminded us that relationships were key.

While Len was bringing in new workers, buying vans and small green 4×4 toyotas (toads), and acquiring buildings needed for programs, Jean tightened the organizational nuts and bolts. She kept the wheels on the rails.

That the system changed lives is attested to by Hedley’s Post Master, Ruth Woodin. She told me that since the doors of the Foundation were closed in the early 1990’s, a number of former students have come into the P.O. and said, “I was a kid here years ago. It changed my life.” Not all have achieved success, of course, but we know of many who now have families and are holding jobs.

In a quiet way, always trusting God for guidance, Len stirred our imagination and spirit, imbuing us with a sense of mission. His compelling presence and unwavering commitment drew us to the work. We wanted to be part of his vision. We wanted to give young people a more optimistic understanding of who they were created to be.

For many Len Roberts was rare and special. For me he became a valued friend.

Art Martens with his friend, Len Roberts
Art Martens with his friend, Len Roberts

It’s A Race Car!


Fred Bell & his race car.
Fred Bell & his race car.

I’ve known for some time that Fred Bell races cars in Penticton. A few days ago I noticed a beat up vehicle on a trailer in front of his home. When I met him and Linda on the street yesterday I asked, “what are you going to do with that wreck on the trailer in front of your house?”

Almost in unison they replied, “that’s not a wreck. It’s a race car!”

I apologized for insulting what they obviously considered a very special car. “Come over and have a look,” Fred offered.


About 15 minutes later I showed up with my camera for a close up inspection of the car, which I learned is a 1972 Monte Carlo. I still thought it appeared extraordinarily trashed and wondered how it could possibly race.

He won a trophy in Penticton with it last weekend,” Linda assured me. “He posted the fastest time in the Heat Race.”

Fred told me with understandable pride he broke a 14 year record in the quarter mile event. “My time was was 16.33,” (seconds) he said. “I’m in 5th place overall for the season.” It’s not surprising he wins. He started racing at age 15. At that time, his father owned the Big Horn Speedway in Keremeos.

I was amazed to learn the car has only 2 forward gears. “It’ll go 80 mph in first,” Fred said.

The car is so banged up because of the “hit to pass” rule. “I’ll have to do some repairs before I race this weekend,” Fred said. “It costs me $7,000 a season to run it. There is no prize money so I’m looking for sponsors to help with the cost.” To raise funds he offers rides at the raceway to all comers. Cost per ride is $20.00. Be sure to turn off your hearing aids though. The roar of that powerful motor will shatter your ear drums.

Fred told me he races because “it’s fun.” It’s definitely not the prettiest car in town but it may be the fastest.

He Still Lives Mightily

John Merriman of Keremeos, BC
John Merriman of Keremeos, BC

After our conversation with 97 year old John Merriman in his Keremeos home, Linda was reminded of counsel offered by the ancient Israeli King Solomon. In his Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, Solomon urged “whatever your hand finds to do, do it mightily.” John has certainly packed a lot of living into his years. He lived in a time when men doing physical work often needed to contend with daunting expectations and challenges. His lean, still robust frame and resolute attitude suggest the inner steel required in those early unforgiving decades.

John was born near Des Moines, Iowa, then at age 5 was taken by his parents to England. In 1927 the family emigrated to Canada and settled on a farm in Birch Hill, Saskatchewan. Here he developed a rugged work ethic. “I clipped sheep, castrated hogs and worked on machinery,” he said. “I was mechanically inclined.”

Later, as a young man I got a job on a farm working for $100 a year.” According to “Stories by John Merriman”, a book written by a great grand daughter, he had a deep religious experience during this time and it shaped the rest of his life.

He subsequently worked on a road building operation. “We were cutting spruce timbers into cord wood, using swede saws, cross cut saws and axes. This is where I first saw a man working with a chain saw. Two men with a cross cut saw could buck logs faster than he could.”

They were working in muddy terrain and often up to 4 layers of logs needed to be laid down. “The earth sucked them under,” he explained. “Somewhere there is probably still a D6 cat buried in the mud out there.”

On a sawmill job he displayed resolve and steady nerves. “A man had his hand cut off by a big saw,” he remembered. “We applied a tourniquet and bandaged the wound. I put him in my car and we set off to the nearest doctor. Every few miles my car came to a stop. The points were corroded so I’d file them. When we met a police car, I stopped in the middle of the road so he couldn’t pass. We put the man in his car and I returned to the mill. All work had ceased because no one would go near the hand still lying there. I buried it.”

In 1942 he enlisted in the Canadian army and was assigned to the Signal Corps. “They paid me $1.10 a day. The food wasn’t so good though, mutton day after day.”

They were each given a “house wives” kit and expected to darn their own socks, or pay for new ones. “As a boy I had watched my mom darn,” he said, “so I could figure out how to do it. Most of the men smoked. I chewed snuff which cost me 10 cents a can. It damaged my teeth and gums though and when it went up to 75 cents, I quit.”

In Italy the truck he was driving was hit by German artillery. It burned up and he suffered burns to his face and arms. “They covered the burns with vaseline and put me in a tent with other disabled men. The tent smelled so bad the food was delivered to the door in a tub and left there. Some men had lost their arms and we helped them eat.”

While John was away, his father lost the family farm due to medical bills. John had saved his army pay, and upon discharge he bought another farm so his father could be on the land again. John began putting together a mill business and also a very successful trucking and construction company.

In March 1945 he went to the local improvement office to pay his taxes. Here he met Doris. “I never had time to fool around, so I married her in June,” he said. They had seven children, and enjoyed 60 years together before she passed away.


Now, deep in retirement he remains active. In 1989 he began driving for the Citizens Patrol. In recent years he has been driving people to medical appointments, to buy groceries, etc. He looks after the 50-50 draws at OAP functions. “After you’re 90,” he said, “they give you a free membership.”

Today John Merriman’s strong hands continue to find things to do, and he does them mightily.

Rhianfa Riel Of Crimson Tine Players

Rhianfa Riel
Rhianfa Riel

Rhianfa Riel had her home painted a deep purple, and the front door yellow. “I like to come home to bright colours every day after work,” she told Linda and me during a conversation in our home. Initially it seemed a tad bizarre but we would learn that her decorating preferences are not motivated solely by a fondness for radiant colours. They reflect an aspect of her life that most of us would attempt to keep secret.

Rhianfa and her husband Martin moved to Princeton in 2008 after working at a youth camp on Gambier Island for 8 years. In time they were hired by the Copper Mountain Mine. “That gave us the opportunity to have our own home,” she said smiling broadly. “It was something I had thought would never happen.” With 2 children (twins), a stable income and a comfortable home, their neighbours likely considered them a typical middle class family. The positive, upbeat aura about Rhianfa makes this an easy assumption. There was however, a troubling shadow constantly lingering over the family.

I was diagnosed with chronic depression in 2004,” Rhianfa said. “For years I felt victimized, frustrated, angry, and impotent to do anything about it. At times I was overcome by rage.”

Most of us know little about depression. It’s tempting to believe it’s a condition we can overcome by an act of the will and adopting a positive mindset. “It isn’t like that,” Rhianfa assured us. “Depression isn’t a choice. It isn’t just a bad day. It isn’t something you can talk yourself up from or out of. Mostly it’s a feeling of great sadness that clings to you and tries to pull you down into a dark hole.”

Listening to her, it became evident to me that depression has no compassion, no willingness to accept a truce, and no redeeming qualities. It crops up when it chooses and runs amuck in the mind. It can ravage a day, even a life.

For Rhianfa the healing of her life began with medication. Then she found a couple of knowledgeable, understanding counsellors. Also, several allies were already standing by her. “Martin believed in me. He listened and he told me he loved me. He is the reason I was able to deal with the rage. Also, my faith in God buoyed me up. It taught me I was loved unconditionally.”

Martin & Rhianfa Riel at their front door.
Martin & Rhianfa Riel at their front door.

Even now, depression comes to do battle with her psyche and emotions virtually every day. Fortunately she’s not apathetic or complacent.

Several years ago I joined the Crimson Tine Players,” she told us. “It’s an outlet for tension and creativity.”

They write the scripts and make the costumes and props. “We do 2 big performances each year. Also occasionally we present a murder mystery at the Vermillion Forks Restaurant. We write the scripts for that ourselves.”

Rhianfa Riel looking out the stage curtains. (photo supplied by Rhianfa Riel).
Rhianfa Riel looking out the stage curtains. (photo supplied by Rhianfa Riel).

Theatre has become a mainstay, a means of giving back. Every 8 weeks she takes 4 youths to watch a live production at the Kelowna Arts Studio. They pay their admission, she buys the gas.

This year we joined Theatre B.C. and entered the OZone Festival. We performed “Rabbit Hole”, a Pulitzer prize winning drama. It was serious and quite difficult, but we did well.”

She is president of Crimson Tine Players and sees it as an opportunity to challenge herself and help others develop confidence and social skills. “I’ve never been in the forefront of anything before. Now I’m meeting people from outside my comfort zone, from every philosophy and walk of life. Theatre is a great way to explore our potential. Anyone can learn to act.”

Rhianfa has practical counsel for individuals besieged by depression, discouragement, loneliness and other difficult conditions. It is, in fact, excellent advice for all of life. She said, “don’t fight it alone, and don’t give up. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, be with people, and chase sunshine. Practise kindness for no reason but kindness. Pray, or find some way to feed your soul. And, allow yourself to be loved.”

At the end she said, “I hold on to my family, to the love I have for them. I make that my reason to keep going. When it gets hard I thank God the hard days aren’t every day.”

A purple house and yellow front door probably aren’t essential for healing, but getting help and taking action are.

A Surprise In Midlife

Ingrid Percival of Keremeos, BC
Ingrid Percival of Keremeos, BC

When Ingrid Percival of Keremeos, BC was 42, she received the surprise of her life. Recalling it in a conversation with Linda and me last week, she smiled, still experiencing a touch of euphoria at the memory. “I became a teenager again,” she said.

Ingrid was born in Germany in 1941, when Adolph Hitler’s Wehrmacht was trampling Europe. “My father was in the military,” she said. “I never really got to know him. After the war my parents divorced and my mother married a British soldier. When I was 8 years old, we moved to England.”

For Ingrid it was an early event in a series of challenging life circumstances. Her face grew serious. “My childhood wasn’t happy. When I told my mom what my stepfather was doing, she didn’t believe me.” This didn’t change when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953.

Some youths retreat to a street existence to escape the emotional quagmire at home. Ingrid possessed the staying power to complete high school, an early manifestation of the spunk and resilience she would require to survive future daunting circumstances. Upon graduating at age 17, she immediately fled from home, a young woman seeking sanctuary and happiness.

She believed the sun was finally shining on her when she fell deeply in love with Bill, a man serving in the navy. Although he loved her, he wasn’t ready to settle into a longterm relationship. He moved away and she was devastated.

Wanting stability and love, at age 19 she accepted a marriage proposal. The promise of happiness was short lived. She soon realized her husband had a serious alcohol addiction. “It wasn’t a good marriage,” she said. “Eventually we got a divorce.” Her face relaxed. “It didn’t leave me bitter. God has always given me the ability to forgive. The marriage did give me 4 good children.” In the midst of turmoil, she had that rare capacity to see a blessing.

She had a stable job with B.C. Electric (now B.C. Hydro) and became a purchasing agent. “I wasn’t dating,” she said, “but I did ask God if there would be a man for me again.”

Her life unexpectedly took a positive turn when she attended a seminar for purchasing agents in Vancouver. “Everyone was already seated when a man walked in,” she recalled. She looked at him and thought, “It can’t be!”

It was Bill, the navy man she had fallen madly in love with as a young woman. At the coffee break she went to him and said, “Hello Bill. Do you remember me?” He said, “How could I ever forget you, Iny?” It was at this point in her account that she said, “I became a teenager again.”

Their lives had been on a parallel track, she told us. “Like me, Bill had married an alcoholic. He was a purchasing agent. Also, at that time he was in the midst of a divorce.”

They again fell in love and this time he was ready. Ingrid and Bill were married and, in spite of a disastrous joint real estate venture, were happy together.

We had 19 wonderful years,” she told us. “At Christmas 2005 Bill died of lung cancer. He was the love of my life.”

Once again her life was in turmoil. “It was tough,” she said, “but I decided to carry on. I went into volunteering. I began working in the kitchen at the Senior Centre when they put on dances. I drive for Volunteer Drivers. I also work at the Food Bank. In the beginning, I did it because I didn’t have to think. Now I do it because I like helping people. It’s satisfying.”

Ingrid found strength to move on emotionally. “I used my mower to cut the sage and weeds on the vacant lot across the street,” she said. “I tried to give away some irises, but no one wanted them so I planted them on the lot. I painted 2 rough benches and placed them there. People began noticing. An old hydrant and a lamp pole were dropped off. Also owls and figurines. It isn’t just my project anymore.”

Ingrid Percival in the  "Secret Garden"
Ingrid Percival in the “Secret Garden”

When people walk by now she sometimes hears them say, “I didn’t know about this garden. It’s beautiful!”

Ingrid Percival garden

The midlife surprise is still a deep well of joy for Ingrid. Now she also derives meaning from “our secret garden,” which gives pleasure to others.

Derek Lilly Discovers Metis Ancestry

Derek Lilly
Derek Lilly

As happens so often, we were sitting at the table in our sun room in Hedley. Derek Lilly was drinking his coffee black and reflecting on his Metis heritage. “The history books don’t tell the whole story about who played significant roles in Canada’s early development,” he said.

Derek was 10 when he came to Hedley with his mom and stepfather. “I looked up at the mountains and felt at home immediately. About a year later the folks decided to move on. I didn’t like their lifestyle so I stayed with my grandparents. They had moved here earlier and were pretty straight people.” His decision to stay was an early demonstration of an ability to make sound choices.

Derek Lilly in front of a house in Hedley, where he lived with his grandparents for a number of years.
Derek Lilly in front of a house in Hedley, where he lived with his grandparents for a number of years.

Although my mom appeared aboriginal, I wasn’t really aware of my Metis heritage at that time. It wasn’t talked about in the family. On my birth certificate I was actually registered as French. They just tried to fit in,” he said.

In grade 10 he dropped out of school and joined the armed forces. After a 4 year stint he returned to Hedley and worked for the One Way Adventure Foundation as a youth counsellor. Here his friendship with a young couple resulted in a spiritual conversion. “This produced a change in how I looked at life,” he said. “I married Noree and not long after we moved to Winnipeg. There I earned a BA in General Studies at Providence University College and Seminary.” Courses such as logic, ethics and philosophy suggest he already had the capacity to mentally wrestle with difficult issues.

In 2004 Derek was hired by the Upper Similkameen Indian Band to run their tourism program. “They were just completing the stairs high up the mountain at the Mascot Mine. I was involved in developing tours. It was during this time that Phillippe, band business manager, encouraged me to check out my Metis heritage. I followed his advice and it changed my life.”

He learned that one of his early grandfathers, John McIver, had come from Scotland. The other, James Lilly, had emigrated from England. Both were probably less than 20 years old. “They worked for the Hudsons Bay Company as fur traders,” he said. “James Lilly’s Day Book is still in the HBC archives in Winnipeg.” Like many European men, they took aboriginal wives and had families. McIver’s first wife was Inuit. When she died, he married a Metis woman.” Unlike some, both McIver and Lilly stayed with their wives and children.

In 1811 the HBC granted a large tract of land to Lord Selkirk. He created the Red River Colony, now Winnipeg, near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers,” Derek said. “He wanted to provide land for retired fur traders. he lots were long, each with frontage on the Red River. My forebears were among the Metis who received lots.”

The Metis were prosperous farmers for a time, but their lives were not trouble free. Difficulties included an infestation of locusts, drought, the government’s desire to push them out, and the Riel Rebellion. Eventually they sold their lots and dispersed to various locations.

In time, some of the Lilly family made the migration to Hedley. For Derek this was fortuitous because it led him into his Metis past. He needed to rigorously study Aboriginal history and culture to run the Mascot Tours, and then represent the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. in their Pavillion at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He also organized tours of Stanley Park for the association’s Klahowya Village.

I asked Derek how his life has been impacted by his Metis heritage. “I never knew my dad,” he said. “What I’ve learned about our history has helped me understand where I came from, who I am, and where I’m going. I also have a better understanding of my mom’s life. Learning about the role of my ancestors in building Canada has given me a greater sense of belonging in this country, a sense of pride.”

Derek with his work truck.
Derek with his work truck.

Derek has contributed to the Hedley community. He was Fire Chief for 18 years and still serves as duty officer one day a week. Currently he is on the Hedley Grace Church Leadership Team. When he retires from his job as an industrial electrician at the pellet plant, he hopes to be more involved in Aboriginal work. The young man who quit school in grade 10 has done a lot to make Metis and Aboriginal people proud.

Former Citizenship Judge Honored

Bill Day expressing deep appreciation for his friends.
Bill Day expressing deep appreciation for his friends.

Although Bill Day lives in Hedley only part-time, some 23 people, primarily citizens of Hedley, gathered last Saturday to honour him on his 83rd birthday. A former college president and citizenship judge, Bill has won the respect of many in the community by participating and contributing wherever he can. Last year he did the sleuthing necessary to locate two WW1 machine guns. He persuaded the owner to loan them to the town for a special commemorative ceremony to pay tribute to the young men who had volunteered for war service.

He is a member of the Hedley Historical Museum Society and when the kitchen needed updating, he gave time to this project. His plumbing experience was a great asset. Bill also worked many hours with Terry Sawiuk restoring Miner’s Cabin at the Museum. When something needs doing, Bill frequently says, “just tell me what you want done and I’ll do it.” Maybe his robust health comes from having an optimistic outlook on life.

Lynn Wells served the birthday cake.
Lynn Wells served the birthday cake.

The party was arranged by Bill’s partner, Lynn Wells. Apparently Bill and Lynn enjoy the company of people making a positive and substantive difference in this community. Virtually every guest present is active in at least one community organization, and, according to Lynn, Bill has worked on one or more projects with each of them this past year.



The atmosphere was upbeat and the cake was delicious.

Laila Bird, No Ordinary Life

Laila Bird holding the rhubarb crisp, which she later served us with ice cream
Laila Bird holding the rhubarb crisp, which she later served us with ice cream

Sitting at a small table on Laila Bird’s deck, Linda and I enjoyed her delicious coffee and the panoramic view of the valley. We had come to engage in a conversation about her life, but at the outset she attempted to dissuade us. “I don’t know why you want to write about me,” she said. “I’m really not interesting.” She then produced the names and phone numbers of 3 acquaintances who she assured us “are really interesting.”

I conjured up what I hoped was an engaging smile and asked, “where were you born, Laila?” Evidently convinced we really did want to know about her life, she said, “I was born on a duck farm in England. My maiden name was Laila McKenzie-Muncaster. We had nannies and housekeepers and mother drove a large American car.” Those words launched her into an intriguing, and sometimes amusing account spanning 80 years. Her story was somewhat akin to entering a maze consisting of numerous side paths, some of which she followed and then inexplicably abandoned. We would come to understand that she’s a lady of great resolve who has learned to embrace life, even in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Her father, an engineer, had a reputation for being knowledgeable about birds. This produced an early memory that is still fixed prominently in her mind. “One day Lady South Hampton asked him to come and advise her concerning her peacocks,” she said. “He took me along and I expected her to be dressed elegantly, like a woman of nobility. I was astonished when she came out of her home wearing torn baggy pants and a sweater held closed by a safety pin.”

Born in 1936 Leila has childhood memories of WW II. “My parents were requisitioned to civilian jobs the government deemed important,” she said. “A machine gun was stationed at the bottom of our garden. The war ruined us.”

As a young woman she got a job in the PR department of the Dutch Embassy and escorted journalists to Holland. Shortly after though, she became annoyed at Britain’s involvement in the 1956 Suez Crisis. “We had just recently dealt with the hardships of war,” she said. “I moved to Canada.”

After several other jobs, she began selling Persian and Oriental rugs for “a man who was very, very lazy. He was an alcoholic and depended on me to take care of the business. He had started it as an auction but I suggested he open a store, so he did. It was a big success.”

In her group of friends was a young man who became keenly interested in her. “He was always around,” she said. “When I left for work in the morning, he was there. When I got home, he was waiting for me.” They got married and started a pig farm in South Langley. “Twenty sows and two boars. We also had goats,” she said. “While I was milking them one day I went into labour. I finished milking, strained the milk and then went into the hospital.”

She recalls the pigs with great fondness. “They had the cutest little babies. Pigs are much like dogs in intelligence and if they’re trained right, they will obey like dogs. They played with soccer balls and toys. They ate a well rounded diet, but not cucumbers.”

A major crisis entered her life when her husband left the family and went to Central America. Responsible for 4 children, Laila needed to be strong. “I had young twins,” she said. “I’d strap one in front, one on my back and go out to move bales of hay and alfalfa.”

Then her life was unexpectedly interrupted by a serious automobile accident that crushed her pelvis. “My heart stopped in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. They got it started, but the doctors told me I’d never walk again. I had 4 children and I disagreed. One day I told a nurse I wanted to use the bathroom. She gave me a walker. Three hours later I got there.” She persevered and today walks with no discernible limp.

Three years ago Laila received treatment for cancer. As president of the Hospital Auxiliary, she can’t take time to feel sorry for herself. “No one wants the job,” she said, “I have to carry on.” On the drive home Linda said, “she hasn’t lived an ordinary life.”

Laila Bird
Laila Bird


Auntie Doll Celebrates 98 Years

Auntie Doll in her home at Olalla
Auntie Doll in her home at Olalla

Not having met 98 year old Auntie Doll previously or spoken with her, I thought she might be a shrunken little lady with a weak hesitant voice and possibly lapses of memory. I was surprised when she gripped my hand firmly like a logger, and warmly welcomed Linda and me into her comfortable home. A zest for life still burns with a lively flame in this lady. Her erect bearing suggests resolute character.

I began by asking how we should address her. She said, “I was born Violet Madeline, but everyone calls me Auntie Doll.” She immediately became Auntie Doll for us.

Although a member of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band she has never lived on the reserve. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was Indian,” she said. “My other grandfather was French. Our family owned a ranch just north of Olalla. When I was 6 months my father died and everyone was needed to keep the ranch going. I was thinking of going into nursing but I quit school after grade 8 to do ranch work.”

“For 6 months each year our cattle were in the mountains,” she said. “As I became old enough I began riding the range. We were out in all weather. At night we stayed in a deserted prospector’s cabin. I loved horses, and I loved riding.” Almost certainly much of her inner resolve was developed during those months in the mountains, keeping track of cattle, contending with storms in spring and fall, and dealing with dangerous situations.

“One morning I was riding up a steep trail with a 30 foot drop to one side,” she recalled. “My horse was anxious. Suddenly it bucked and threw me off. I was lucky. I landed on a huge sagebrush that kept me from falling all the way down.” Another time her horse stumbled. Her head took a hard hit and she was kept in the hospital 2 weeks.

Auntie Doll never learned the language of the band but her mother taught her the thinking and culture of their people. “Mom understood the language,” she said. “Being the youngest, I was with her a lot. She talked about people who had gone before her time. She knew about the natural medicines our people use. Sometimes we dug up edible roots for food. We dried berries and choke cherries and she preserved fruit in jars.”

I asked about a deer head with splendid antlers mounted on one wall. “I shot it when I was 19,” she told us. “I was a pretty good shot and I bagged quite a few. We always had lots of food.”

Auntie Doll remembers shooting this deer at age 19.
Auntie Doll remembers shooting this deer at age 19.

As a young woman she danced in Pow Wows. “The beat of the drum is the heart beat of mother Earth,” she said. “The land is important. Young people should get an education, but they shouldn’t forget the past.”

“I was married to Reg in 1944. The next day he was sent to the war where he was a scout and a sniper. The Germans captured him and he was in a prisoner of war camp 7 months.”

After the war they bought the family ranch. “Reg had been wounded,” she said, becoming very serious. “He had terrible nightmares from the war. He was never the same. We couldn’t keep the ranch. It was a hard time. We had one son. Reg died in 1983.”

Auntie Doll at 32 years
Auntie Doll at 32 years

In spite of a physically vigorous life, or possibly because of it, Auntie Doll retains remarkably robust health. “I take a little pink pill and a baby aspirin,” she said, “but not every day. I try to understand life and make the best of it. There will be bumps. We have to find a way around them.”

Although she no longer attends the monthly meetings of elders, she values her connection to the band. I asked if she knows Chief Keith Crow. “Yes,” she said with conviction. “Chief Crow will do well for us.”

As we were about to go, she said “ Life is still exciting. I enjoy every day. Now that I’m so close, I’d like to get to 100.”

Auntie Doll asked me to remind family and friends to come to her 98th birthday celebration at her home in Cherrywood Estates in Olalla on May 21. It will begin at 1 pm with the potluck dinner at 4. Happy Birthday Auntie Doll!