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School of kindness: Fort McMurray honours Métis elder who believed in its power

From meeting the pope to bearing the Olympic torch, Elsie Yanik was honoured for her kindness. On Tuesday, a day that would have been her 101st birthday, the life of the Métis elder will be celebrated during the grand opening of Elsie Yanik Catholic School.

'The smile she would bring when she walked into the building was very infectious'

Elsie Yanik sits in front of a portrait of herself in June 2014 painted by Fort McMurray artist Russell Thomas. (Russell Thomas/ Submitted)

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.

In big, red lettering, the words ‘Kindness is contagious’ greet students everyday at Elsie Yanik Catholic School. (David Thurton/ CBC)

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.

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.

Elsie Yanik accepts an honorary degree from the University of Alberta in 2014. ( University of Alberta)

"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.

Prolific volunteer

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.

Torchbearer Elsie Yanik, 92, makes her way to the stage to light the community cauldron in Fort McMurray, Alta., in November 2009. (The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)

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.

Elsie Yanik receives holy communion from Pope John Paul II in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., in 1987. (NWT Archives/ Rene Fumoleau)

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.

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."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.