This summer (2007), long-time Churchill resident and story teller, Catherine (Myrtle) deMeulles will receive Manitoba’s highest honour, the Order of Manitoba.
Sitting in her living room, preparing caribou hair sculptures for this fall, Myrtle, in her characteristic frank and light-hearted manner, explains, ‘You know, it’s the weirdest thing, the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba called up; I didn’t recognize his voice so I thought it was one of the tour companies calling to order some caribou hair sculptures for this tourist season.’
‘I don’t really like chit-chattin’ on the phone, kind of just state your case… so he was talking away and I finally said,’so anyway, what’s up?!?’
That was then he indicated that he was the Honourable John Harvard, Lt. Governor and Chancellor of the Order of Manitoba… ‘At first, I didn’t believe him! But he said that he really was who he said he was and that I had been chosen to receive the Order of Manitoba this year! To which I responded, what in the heck is that?!? Turns out it’s a pretty big thing!’
That may be an understatement.The Order of Manitoba is an honour bestowed on individuals who ‘exemplify the tremendous accomplishments of Manitobans in the community on Provincial and International Levels. This is the 128th year of confederation, and up until now there have been 109 inductees, with an additional seven being added this year. Former Churchill resident and creator of the Tundra Buggy, Len Smith, was inducted into the Order in 2006.
After her induction, Myrtle will wear the insignia of the Order of Manitoba, and O.M. will be added after her name. Myrtle shrugs a bit and smiles, but the pride is apparent. ‘Enough people nominated me for my cultural talks, for my artwork and my contributions to the community.’
She continues, ‘This has happened at the right time, I feel it has validated me as an artist and as a creator of my own art form, caribou hair sculptures.’
Back when Myrtle was part of the Arctic Sewing Centre, she created a unique northern artform, at first from the caribou hide scraps at the Centre. For almost 25 years, she has developed this artform. Her caribou hair sculptures can be found on display at the Bayport Plaza in Churchill.
Besides creating her own patented artform, Myrtle is Churchill’s premiere story teller for visiting tour groups. For over 19 years now, she has shared stories of her Metis heritage, growing up on the trapline, working in the bush.
‘Metis developed our own unique culture, a cross between native and European sides of us, using the aspects of each culture that worked for us!’ She continues, ‘When I started, I wanted to explain myself, we were all scottish half-breeds, but when you say Metis, everyone assumed we were half-French. I try to emphasize the importance of the Scottish influence as much as my Aboriginal heritage.’
‘My talks are a fun thing, focusing on the positives of life in the north. I like to get people laughing, help everyone learn to laugh at themselves. Sometimes people send me videos of my presentations but they get a little too shaky because they’re laughing and trying to film at the same time!’
Sitting in her living room, Myrtle goes through her speech with me, explaining ’I want to say thanks to my siblings, friends, family and elders that have taught me so much. I’ve devoted my life to my family and my community and this is something that I’m really proud of.’ She reads a bit further, ‘Then I started getting really sentimental and so I crossed that part out…’ She reads for a bit, then laughs,
‘Katie asked me to write down some notes about my life… and here it is all on only one page! Isn’t that terrible!!!’
Well, to be honest, Myrtle covers a lot of ground on that one page. Summing up a childhood on the trapline near Cumberland House, a way of life since past, in only a few lines. She adds a couple lines about speaking Cree as a child, cutting lumber in the summer, being a fire camp cook as a young woman and eventually coming to Churchill to work.
One or two sentences cover much of her life in Churchill – bought a cab company, ran the ambulance for a few years… worked at Hudson’s Bay Company, Arctic Trading Company, helped start the Arctic Sewing Centre. Forty years with the Manitoba Metis Federation. Each of which could easily cover a chapter rather than a sentence!
But Myrtle is a storyteller, putting the paper away, she shares a few with me. She begins with her arrival in Churchill in 1956.
‘My sister, Lily, was working up here and got me to come up because there were jobs opening up at the Port. When I got off the train, I had just come up from the lumber camps. I was wearing men’s clothing, had a pack sack and limped from a big bandage on my leg. I hadn’t seen my sister in two years. I saw her looking everywhere in the crowd at the station and then she walked past me! I followed her and when she realized who I was, she hit me on the arm and cried, ‘You’re all grown up!’ I guess that was better than saying ‘Boy, do you look like a man!’
Myrtle had a bit of a rocky start in Churchill though. Her first impression of the town was not great. ‘I just wanted to my first paycheque and get out of here! I didn’t tell my sister that though! All the way up here, especially at that barren spot along the tracks, I kept thinking there’s no trees, its cold, why the heck would people live up here?’
‘Trouble is, there was this guy in town, Bill Black, who owned a shoe store and clothing store and he would let you charge anything you wanted in his store. Well, I went from lumber jack to ‘girly girl’ practically overnight! Bobby socks, angora sweaters with pom poms, all those things that were in style back then… so, I had to stick around to pay for my clothes!
‘My first job in Churchill was at the Churchill Hotel. I ended up working as a ‘cookie’, that’s what they called the cook’s helper, at the Churchill Hotel.
There were eight of us working at the Churchill, seven Ukrainians and me: the token half-breed!’ Myrtle laughs.
‘I was the ‘mashed potatoes girl’ and there was this one young man working at the port, everytime he came past me in the line, his face would turn red!’
‘One day, with some encouragement from his friends, he finally asked if I wanted to go see a movie. There was a big line up and I stood there for a bit, just to let him sweat it out!’ Myrtle mischievously raises her eyebrows and continues with a big smile. ‘He quickly added, ‘Well, I’ll buy you a burger after!’
‘You see, there was this guy, Slim Wilson, who ran the theatre and burger stand and Wilson had the best damn burgers in the world. So that was a cinch! I said ‘sure’! Of course, I never told him that I would have gone with or without the burger.’ Sounds like that first movie (and burger) were pretty good, since Myrtle and Bob deMeulles have been happily married for over 40 years now.
Myrtle will be invested with the insignia of the Order of Manitoba on Thursday July 10th. Afterwards an open ceremony will be held in the Manitoba Room at the Legislature and then a formal dinner afterwards. Of course, there are a complication or two, Myrtle raises her eyebrows, ‘I’ve got a bit of a problem! I have four guest passes to the dinner but I’ve got five kids and a husband!’
- prepared by Kelsey Eliasson