First Nations drummers and dancers joined participants in the final session of the College of New Caledonia Lakes District Campus lunch time elders series. The noon workshops brought elders and participants together to share in the experiences of those who came before us.

First Nations drummers and dancers joined participants in the final session of the College of New Caledonia Lakes District Campus lunch time elders series. The noon workshops brought elders and participants together to share in the experiences of those who came before us.

Elders pass on wisdom and culture to others

Lean years in B.C.’s North shaped humble but powerful people.

“It is the life and times of our elders,” said Anthony Tom, Aboriginal Student Support worker at College of New Caledonia Lakes District Campus (CNC).

“We risk losing their stories, ways and knowledge,” Tom said. “We need to get youth and students in touch with the traditions they are lacking… We can learn from our elders – where they came from, the work they did, and what they experienced.”

Through a series of lunchtime workshops hosted by CNC in Burns Lake, First Nations elders are invited to share memories of growing up in the region.

These elders were true community builders. They supported their parents and older siblings when they were young by listening, learning and helping. Growing older they’ve kept what they’ve learned and have been passing it on to their own children and families, although times and circumstances have changed drastically.

On Dec. 11 2013, four elders from the Bear and Frog clans, Leonard Michel, Damian Pierre, Connie Dennis and Annie Patrick shared some of their experiences as young men and women, and offered to help carry on the traditions they have inherited from their parents and grandparents.

Connie Denis and Annie Patrick are cousins.

Patrick, the last of 14 children, remembers life as a young girl. She learned to make fish nets, to work with moose hides to make moccasins, vests and jackets.

“We hated to work on the moose hides, they were rotten and smelly,” Patrick said. “But we couldn’t say no to our parents.”

“We had no freezers or fridges back then,” she said. “We learned to make preserves, and we would cut blocks of ice in the winter and cover them in sawdust [to use in the summer].”

“It was a hard time, but we were happy. Our family was all together.”

After living in the Smithers area for 42 years, Patrick has now moved back to Burns Lake.

Connie Denis grew up in Fort Babine, long before the modernities of electricity had made its way there.

“We packed water to wash our clothes,” she said. “In the winter we would have to melt snow to wash clothes.”

She met her future husband Peter at 17. They were married in Smithers where they lived for 16 years. Denis has since lost her husband and two boys. She now calls Burns Lake home.

Damian Pierre remembers the first time he saw electricity. It was after a walk from Donald’s Landing on the shores of Babine Lake to Burns Lake.  He followed an old wagon trail and saw the old Beach garage on the west end of town, where the vacant building across from the old Root 16 restaurant is today.

“Beach’s garage had the first electric light I ever saw,” Pierre said.

Growing up in Fort Babine without roads, hydro or running water, under the hot summer sun and long winter nights, Pierre summed up the experience in a phrase.

“Life was hard; we were lucky to survive.”

“I had no money, so at 17 I started work on building the Hudson Bay store,” Damian recalled. “When the job was finished I had enough money to buy a 30/30 rifle for $75. I could finally hunt and feed my family.”

“In those days I didn’t get tired. When I was 19 I worked in a sawmill. This was before power saws, we did everything by hand with cross-cut saws.”

Not all hardships were imposed by life’s circumstances.

Pierre recalled entering a rodeo to shake off wise crackers who made fun of his wearing a cowboy hat when he had never ridden a horse.

He broke his kneecap that day, but took it in stride.

“That was the end of my rodeo career,” he said.

Born in Old Fort, Leonard Michel continues to use the traditions he learned at his parents’ side as a youth.

This year’s low snowfall and relatively cold weather has set up ideal conditions for Michel to take one of his traditional skills to Pinkut Lake, north of Burns Lake.

“We’ll set nets and lines under the ice,” he said.

Michel invited anyone in attendance to join him and learn how to cast fish nets under ice.

“It’s how we carry on what our parents taught us, we carry on as our parents left off.”

The CNC lunchtime program has concluded for 2013, but Tom anticipates it may be brought back in the new year.