School of kindness: Fort McMurray honours Métis elder who believed in its power
'The smile she would bring when she walked into the building was very infectious'
In red script, the phrase "Kindness is contagious" greets students at Fort McMurray's newest school.
That's because the new building, which welcomed its first students earlier this month, is named after a quiet titan of goodness, northern Alberta's Elsie Yanik.
"Elsie would come into the school and the smile she would bring when she walked into the building was very infectious," said George McGuigan, superintendent of Fort McMurray Catholic School District. "And people would see that and it would brighten up their day."
From being blessed by the pope to bearing the Olympic torch, Elsie Yanik received many honours in her lifetime.
On Tuesday, a day that would have been her 101st birthday, friends and family will celebrate the life of the Métis elder during the grand opening of Elsie Yanik Catholic School.
The Christmas that changed Yanik
Yanik died in November 2016 at the age of 99.
A message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the flood of condolences that poured in.
Born in tiny Fort Fitzgerald, on the northeastern corner of Wood Buffalo National Park, Yanik's mother died when she was eight.
It was in those early years that the power of kindness showed itself to Yanik and the siblings she had to look after.
My sincere condolences on the passing of Elsie Yanik at age 99. A highly respected Métis elder, mentor and leader who touched so many. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ymm?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ymm</a>—@JustinTrudeau
In 2014, during a speech after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta, Yanik recalled a Christmas Day encounter that left a lasting impression.
"It became apparent that Santa Claus had forgotten us," Yanik recounted.
But a family friend, Syd Porter, saw the sad faces and showed up at their home with a "gunny sack full of gifts," telling them St. Nick had dropped them off at the wrong house.
Yanik never forgot Porter and how that one act of kindness changed her life.
"Kindness is enduring. Kindness makes everyone feel good," Yanik said in her speech. "The person who gives kindness feels as good as the person receiving kindness."
Yanik told the graduates Porter was her "professor" of kindness. Throughout her life, she said, she felt compelled to keep that spirit alive.
"Trust me, [kindness] may not make you live longer. But you will certainly live better," Yanik said.
After her mother's death, she spent almost a decade at a residential school in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., a period she later speaks of with praise and admiration. At age 17, she considered pursuing a career in nursing but changed her mind after the death of her father in a train accident.
Then at Christmas Eve mass, she met Lawrence Yanik, the man who would become her husband.
She spent her winters in the bush looking after her growing family while her husband trapped.
"Our honeymoon was in the bush," Yanik said in the book Mark of the Métis, Traditional Knowledge and Stories of the Métis People of Northeastern Alberta.
After stints back in Fort Fitzgerald working on the family farm, Yanik and her husband moved to Fort Chipewyan in 1961.
With their children grown up and moved out, Yanik threw herself into the Dene, Cree and Métis community about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
An avid parka maker and beader, she taught others how to sew and bead. She was also heavily involved in the Catholic Women's League.
Since the community didn't have a resident priest, Yanik took on the role of lay minister, performing baptisms, weddings and funerals.
"For her, that wasn't work. That's something she enjoyed doing," daughter Bunny Koosel said in an interview with CBC.
Kindness makes you happy
Yanik eventually moved to Fort McMurray for health reasons after her husband died.
Longtime friend Anne Michalko said Yanik kept up with her busy schedule even into her final years. She gave of her time to work with students and opened many functions with her prayers.
And kindness continued to be an important part of Yanik's life, Michalko said.
She often kept other elders company and would send money to Michalko's granddaughter when she was a university student.
Friends and family said they'll be attending the school's grand opening on Tuesday along with Alberta Education Minister David Eggen.
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Michalko hopes the new school becomes more than just a place where students learn math and science — a place where the most important subject is kindness.
"Kindness was an important thing in her life," Michalko said.
"Because it was in kindness and being good to our neighbours that we are happiest."