Remembering 'condom granny': Jackie McPherson, safe sex advocate, dies after career helping youth

For more than 20 years, Jackie McPherson dedicated herself to spreading awareness and equipment for safe sex among Indigenous youth in Canada.

Jackie McPherson spent more than 20 years educating Indigenous youth on safe sex and HIV prevention

In her life, Jackie McPherson was known as "condom granny."
Jackie McPherson, affectionately called the "condom granny," passed away earlier this week. This sketch of her was done by Gerald Kuehl. (Submitted by Gerald Kuehl)

For more than 20 years, the community health representative from Little Black River First Nation, Man., dedicated herself to spreading awareness and equipment for safe sex among Indigenous youth, especially on the subject of HIV and AIDS.

"You could say Jackie McPherson was the whole package," said Gerald Kuehl.

The Canadian artist got to know McPherson when he interviewed and sketched her for his book, Portraits of the North, three years ago.

McPherson died earlier this week. Kuehl said he'd describe her as a hard and dedicated worker, but that wasn't what made her special in his eyes.

"She really saw how [people with HIV] were marginalized in their communities. She was a very special woman, and she didn't shy away from any of it," he said.

"She wanted these kids to know. She said, these communities are dying for education."

'Very smart, very proud'

McPherson was one of 14 children in her family, Kuehl said, and she was used to working hard. Her work educating young people took her to First Nations across northern Manitoba and Quebec, where she travelled by dogsled between 10 Inuit communities.

She even made her way to New Zealand to educate people there, he added.

"Jackie was a pretty sharp lady," he said.

Kuehl connected with her through her brother, affectionately called Churchill. He remembers hearing stories about her for years before finally getting together with McPherson and her husband.

"Jackie's name would pop up every now and again and he would say, 'Oh, that's my sister, condom granny,'" Kuehl said.

Kuehl still remembers meeting her for the first time and taking her photo outside her home so he could draw her later. She showed him newspaper clippings describing her work, including one from the New York Times from 1991.

"She brushed her hair and she came out and she sat there. She's a very smart, very proud lady," he said.

"I photographed her and then we went back inside. She pulled out her big binder [of clippings] and I started asking her questions and I got a real sense of who this woman was."

McPherson took pride in her work with young people, Kuehl said. She impressed him with her emphasis on connecting with her audience.

"She said, 'We would come there with … things like condoms and stuff and we had these kids actually do this. We wouldn't stand back and be professors and lecture like in a classroom and all they'd hear would be words,'" he recalled.

"She said, 'We worked hands on with these kids.'"

With files from Kim Kaschor and Ismaila Alfa