Garden Hill elder celebrates 92nd birthday, offers advice to great-grandson

For the first time in his life, Meagan Fiddler's 12-year-old son goes home to his First Nation as her grandfather turns 92. This is their story.

Oldest man in Garden Hill is also grandpa to CBC's Meagan Fiddler, who took son for 1st visit

It was the opportunity to bring three generations of one family together. And the chance for one of them to go home to see their first nation for the first time. The CBC's Meagan Fiddler takes you along as she returns to Garden Hill with her son for her grandfather's 92nd birthday. 6:51

With his blond head on the shoulder of my goomasoom, who just told him about growing up in Garden Hill, my son, Fynn, hugs his great-grandfather. And his great-goomasoom puts his head down onto Fynn's and laughs. This breathy laugh, and then a sigh.

That one moment makes my entire trip home worth it.
Fynnley Pearson gives his great-granddad a hug on his first visit to Garden Hill First Nation. (CBC)

I went to Garden Hill First Nation, 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, in March to see my Goomasoom (grandfather in Oji-Cree) on his 92nd birthday. On the same day as his birthday party, the community learned one of their own youth was arrested for the murder of an 11-year-old girl, Teresa Robinson. It was exactly the kind of story I wanted to avoid when I came home.

I actually only lived in Garden Hill for two years — nursery school and kindergarten. My parents moved us to Selkirk in 1984 because they wanted us to get a better education.

But those two years with my grandparents formed a lot of the memories I hold closest. I remember Jesus on their wall and a pot of tea on the table and fresh bannock with lard and strawberry jam out of a white tin. I remember the TV was always on and my grandfather wearing thick plaid button-up shirts.

I remember my gookum (grandmother) working on her beadwork and quietly humming to herself.

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      Straight grey hair tucked under a headscarf, pinned down with bobby pins on each side, her eyes were so calm. One was blue and rheumy, but there was peace in them always. She never wore pants. Just dresses, flowery gookum ones. And thick, thick stockings that she always had to pull up, with socks over top of that and then her moccasins. I remember a maroon cardigan that she used to wear.

      Any time you visited, she would be in her chair and you'd walk over and shake her hand — which is what you did with every elder. "Wachay," she would say. I did that every time I saw her until she passed.

      I still shake hands with my goomasoom and it's what my son is told to do as soon as we get to his home. This is Fynn's first time stepping foot in Garden Hill. I hope this visit is enough to create a connection for him, the same kind I have for our home community.

      Abel Fiddler was born in Sandy Lake, Ont., in 1924. He's not sure exactly when, but he was young when they travelled by canoe to Garden Hill and stayed. As the crow flies, that's more than 125 kilometres. By canoe, it's farther.

      His father, my great-grandfather, served as chief for 22 years, the longest-serving chief in Garden Hill. Back then leaders were chosen by the community, not through elections.

      My goomasoom was asked a number of times to be a councillor, but he always declined.

      In the early years, there wasn't much, he says. A few log buildings, a general store, a church. Children like my grandfather wore super cute but practical rabbit-skin coats to stay warm.
      My grandfather, Abel, with his dad, Henry Fiddler. (The Light of Yesterday)

      Before the family log cabin was built, he lived in a teepee.

      "It was so hard. There was no help," Goomasoom says.

      Homes back then were one room. The logs were clad with moss. Chimneys were created out of mud before tin chimneys arrived, and newspaper insulation kept them warm.

      You had to make do with what you had, Goomasoon tells Fynn. Most everything was made by hand. You cooked where your heat came from and you had to catch what you ate.

      "I can't eat like you guys, like fast food. I like wild food — beaver, moose meat, fish. That's how I grew up, just fish and meat," he says.

      Beaver was a real treat.

      "That was my favourite. The tail part. Muskrat. I like muskrat too. All the wild meat, I like. And salads — I don't like salads."

      Waboose is Oji-Cree for rabbit, and my goomasoom craves it almost all the time. Problem is he can't trap them on his own any more. He jokingly tells my son to make my dad feel guilty for not sending any up north for him.

      "Twenty dollars," he says. "I can't afford that. But your grandfather, Henry, he can get rabbit for free. That's what I want, free rabbits."

      Goomasoom did a number of odd jobs. He worked on the MS Keenora, which is now in the Marine Museum in Selkirk, but used to run to Norway House, during the war when most of the white men went overseas, he says.

      He also helped build the nursing station on Stevenson Island, just a short boat ride across the water from Garden Hill.

      "I got 35 cents an hour. That was how I survived. It was cheap back then. Lard was 25 cents back then for one kilogram. Tea bags were 65 cents and we thought it was expensive."

      He was a successful hunter. Gookum did all the tanning and stretching of the hides.

      He was also a commercial fisherman for 25 years. When they were pulling nets, he would to throw the fish at our feet while they were still alive. He and my gookum would laugh at my sister and I as we kicked them away. He says he misses those days.

      For his birthday, there is no shortage of celebrating. His home is a busy place, more so than normal. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come to shake hands and say happy birthday. This is what makes my goomasoom happiest — seeing his grandchildren grow up. My son gives him a goose. Another Garden Hiller, Ivan Harper, drops off a massive lake trout.

      But before his birthday party begins, there is news that RCMP arrested a youth from the community for the murder of 11-year-old Teresa Robinson.

      It's a reminder that there is a rough, sad side to my community. It looks rougher than I remember. There's crime, drugs and booze on this dry reserve. Goomasoom tells me when his father was chief, the RCMP only visited the community twice in 22 years. Now the RCMP are here all the time.

      It breaks my goomasoom's heart to see what's happening to some community youth. And he has some advice for my son.

      "I want you to be a solid man. I want you to be 92. I don't want you to drink. I never touched a drop — that's how I reached 92," he tells Fynn.

      In the tiny community hall you see their strength, their resiliency. It's packed to overflowing for his birthday party. His nieces, who organized the party, are determined to go ahead with the celebration despite the sad news. It's too important to miss and a much-needed distraction.
      My grandfather, Abel Fiddler, and me at his 92nd birthday celebration in Garden Hill First Nation. (Meagan Fiddler)

      A massive cake comes out with the 92 candles I brought from Winnipeg. The chief and council share their best wishes and he's given the best gift he could asked for: The local youth perform a square dance. He quietly watches. It's great to see him so happy.

      To the tune of happy birthday, singing fills the hall.

      "May the good lord bless you. May the good lord bless you. May the good lord bless and keep you. Happy birthday to you …"

      My grandfather says he has been blessed.

      So have my son and I.

      About the Author

      Meagan Fiddler joined CBC News in Winnipeg in 2013. She graduated from the Academy of Broadcasting in 2009. She began her career at APTN, starting out as an intern, working her way to researcher, writer and eventually reporter and fill-in host for the network. Meagan is proud to be the granddaughter of the eldest elder in her family's home community of Garden Hill First Nation.