North

Nurse's 'timely' memoir of 1950s Yukon dusted off and republished

Ann Wilson became an outspoken advocate for the Indigenous people and communities she served as a field nurse, and was often frustrated by government inaction. Her 1965 memoir is being republished this month.

Amy Wilson travelled by car, horse, and dog team to provide health care to Indigenous communties

Amy Wilson, seen here in Yukon in the early 1950s, published a memoir in 1965 about her time working as a field nurse in northern B.C. and Yukon. The book is being republished this month. (Submitted by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne)

Amy Wilson died more than a half-century ago, but her grand-niece thinks Wilson's life story still has lessons to impart.

Wilson published a memoir in 1965, about her time as a field nurse working with Indigenous people along the Alaska Highway in northern B.C. and Yukon in the 1940s and '50s — and the book has long been out of print.

It's being republished this month, titled When Days Are Long: Nurse in the North

"I've been the inheritor of all things Amy. And so I just wanted to reintroduce my ancestor to Canadians," said Wilson's grand niece Laurel Deedrick-Mayne, who wrote the book's introduction.

Wilson accepted the job of field nurse for northern B.C. and Yukon in the late 1940s, after a spell working in northern Alberta. Deedrick-Mayne says her great aunt was a bit of an outsider, and an adventurer who fell in love with the North and its people.

"She just kept being drawn further and further north, and deeper into the lands and the people that she seemed to really connect with."

Wilson travelled by horse, dog team, car or boat to reach the settlements and communities she served as a field nurse. (Submitted by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne)

Wilson's time in the North was challenging and heartbreaking, as it coincided with the diphtheria epidemic. Her job was to care for thousands of Indigenous people, spread out over thousands of kilometres.

"She rode by horseback into the camp where five people had already died, and she rode all day, well into the night. Fires from the funeral pyre of the dead were kind of guiding her," Deedrick-Mayne said.

"She came upon absolute devastation ... She's down on her hands and knees in the tent where the sickest people were. And that kind of launched her in to dedicating her heart to people."

'She was calling out the government'

Wilson became an outspoken advocate for the people and communities she tended to and befriended. She lobbied for better services and supplies, and was often frustrated.  

"She found that her reports back to the hospital and to the Department of Indian Affairs and Ottawa, making pleas for people who needed assistance, was falling on deaf ears," Deedrick-Mayne said.

'She just kept being drawn further and further north,' said Wilson's grand niece. (Submitted by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne)

"I think she just had enough of it, of not feeling that the needs of the people were being heard — and she actually went to the press ... she was calling out the government, and I think that took quite a bit of courage."

Deedrick-Mayne says her great aunt's memoir is also a light-hearted travelogue in parts, where she describes the sights, and how she got around by dog team, car or boat.

But what resonates most for Deedrick-Mayne is her aunt's dedication to improving the lives of the people she served. She calls Wilson an inspiration, and she hopes the republished memoir finds a new audience. 

"I think releasing it now is just timely, because things haven't changed all that much. But it's also a tender reminder that compassion never ends."
  

Written by Paul Tukker, based on an interview by Elyn Jones

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