It was a bright sunny day when the writer arrived at the log cabin style home of Thecla Pheasant, a few kilometres from the heart of Wikwemikong in South Bay (Dooganning). Her porch boasted a successful harvest: four large tubs of perfect potatoes and a dozen squash adorning the railing. The writer was stopped in her tracks when she noticed what appeared to be a live skunk sitting on a chair near the main entry door. Upon closer inspection, the skunk was actually a lifeless pelt that was strategically placed, as was ascertained later, to ward off other skunks, an interesting concept that seemed to work.
Thecla’s daughter bid me enter and took me over to her mother, who was sitting comfortably in her favourite chair and marvelling at the beauty outside her window. After explaining the purpose of the visit, to capture her story for others to enjoy, she began.
“I was born on April 25, 1932 to Louis and Bridget (McGregor) Gaiashk. My dad was from Wiky and my mother from Birch Island. My mother said her labour was very short. She got up in the morning, knew her time was near, bathed, washed her hair and called the midwife who lived across the road. I was born at one in the afternoon. I always wanted two names, but I am used to the one name now. I was blessed with 14 brothers and sisters: Harvey, Dan, Julius, Alphonse, Anthony, Mary Louise and Charlotte. The other seven died as babies, some with whooping cough. Both Dan and Alphonse were in the Second World War. Dan came back but we never saw Alphonse again. My dad, Louis Gaiashk, passed away with a heart attack in the winter of 1938. I was only six.”
The school and the church, in Buzwah, were very close for the Gaiashk children. “I remember my first day at school at age seven. I ran home at lunch time. I liked school; playing with the other kids was fun. There were no bullies around. Grade 1 had only three children, including me. It was a one-room school, like all the others. I remember Cecil King as being very tall, but he was in Grade 7 or 8.” Cecil became a lifelong educator who believed that First Nations children need not sacrifice their culture and teachings in school. Professor King became Dean of the Saskatoon Campus of the First Nations University of Canada. He is also a Professor Emeritus of Queens University.
“We moved to Kaboni when I was 11, in Grade four. I was by myself now. The other children in my family had moved on so I had to walk alone. If it was stormy, I had to stay at school or stay with a brother who lived nearby.”
The family had lots of land there for sheltering animals and growing food. Thecla’s father was a farmer who also fixed shoes in his home. Thecla would help by lacing the shoes back up for her dad. Her mother worked in the Queen’s Hotel in Manitowaning and she often walked all the way from Kaboni to Manitowaning. Bridget looked after her children, tended to the garden and worked at other jobs. “She worked hard all her life.”
Christmas was a special time for the family. “We all went to church at midnight. After the services, we had Christmas dinner, chicken or turkey, at three or four in the morning. It was a time for visiting family. This was a tradition for many years. New Year’s was much the same. It was time for nimkoodadeng, when community members travelled to each other’s homes and wished each other well. Food was offered and pleasantries exchanged. A visitor was offered a hand shake, followed by an apple or a biscuit. It meant that we were happy to share the pleasure of a new year coming.”
Music and dancing often accompanied these occasions. Violins, drums, fiddles and guitars would come out and someone would sing. It was a very festive, happy time. “As I got older, this was not done as much,” she sighed. Daughter Lorie adds, “I remember travelling with my family in a horse-pulled sleigh. When we got to our destinations, tea and cookies were waiting for us.”
“I can still see the rag doll I got for Christmas,” Thecla shares. “All our toys were homemade. There was no money for gifts. We lived quite simply and our homes had just the bare essentials: beds, benches and a table with a few chairs, but we had fun too. We played in our home: tag, marbles and hide-and-seek.”
Listening to the elders was stimulating and educational for the young lass. “I really enjoyed hearing their stories about their daily lives. They would often talk about the future, too. I heard, ‘We will not be here for this time we are discussing, but you will be,’ pointing to me and the other children. ‘One day the gravel road will look like it has been ironed and there will be marks in the middle.’ They were right.”
Thecla and Lorie remember moving 100 yards from the family’s original log home to a ‘band house.’ “Our horse pulled the wagon that moved our household goods. The girls shared one room and the boys another. Our parents had the third bedroom. In the old log home, all the children slept in the loft and our parents had the bedroom downstairs.”
Each summer, the family grew a big garden and fished or hunted for meat. Daughter Lorie explains that she enjoys gardening at her home in Port Perry, north of Oshawa, too. Early ‘outside’ work for Thecla involved washing dishes in a Manitowaning restaurant. Later, in her teens, she was employed two years at the Mansion House, or the Anchor Inn as it is called today. “I worked from daylight to dark every day, not just eight hours. Thankfully, I had a friend employed there too. Lots of people came to eat in the Mansion House. Tourists from the Normac and the Caribou ferries would arrive from South Baymouth in their cars. Sometimes they would ask where nearby farms or animals might be seen. If we had time, we would show them.”
Four summers were spent at the Big Lake Resort too. “We were paid well and the tips were good. We cleaned cabins and did waitressing work. To serve the food, we had to wear uniforms that were only to be worn in the dining room. We had to change again to clean cabins but we liked that work.”
Thecla met her husband to be, Jerome Pheasant, when she was walking on Kaboni Road, looking for a taxi for her mum who had to go to town to cash a cheque. Jerome happened to see her. He had his brother in the truck. “Is there a fire somewhere or why are you walking to Wiky so fast?” he asked her. She explained that her mother needed a ride into town. Jerome suggested she hire him for the task. Thecla thought this was a good idea so they drove to fetch her mother.
When Jerome dropped Thecla off at home after the bank visit, he asked her to go to Sunday movie night with him. She said ‘yes.’ Movies appeared on the weekend when a man from Gore Bay brought them to town. This gave teens something to do. Movies were popular before television came and before the arena was built.
Jerome worked for Ontario Hydro, in their forestry division, cutting trees and placing poles. He also fished and did construction work, helping to build the South Bay Community Centre. He was a strong, reliable worker. He and Thecla became a twosome.
They married on May 20, 1953, a sparkling sunny Wednesday at 8:30 in the morning, in the South Bay Church. The priests always set the time for the ceremony. Invitations went out by foot. Family members travelled from door to door to offer invites. The wedding car was decorated for their departure from the church and a feast was held in the evening at the home of a brother-in-law. Many guests arrived and they danced until five in the morning.
There was no time for a honeymoon. Jerome had to get back to work. Thecla stayed with her new family of in-laws and helped them for the next few months. At that time the couple got a small house on the Pheasant family homestead. Their first two babies were born in the Manitowaning hospital. Dr. Moody kept his practice in Manitowaning and he also made house calls. After the Manitowaning hospital closed, the other children were born in Little Current.
Thecla and Jerome had nine children. “I enjoyed raising the kids. We had our own yard for them to play in. Laundry was done with a wash board because the wringer washer didn’t come until later. The school bus picked up the children. Grades 1 to 4 were in Kaboni and Grades 5 to 8 were in the town of Wikwemikong. The older children had gone to Espanola for high school, the younger kids went to West Bay (Manitoulin Secondary School).” Mother Bridget died in 1965 at 72 when Thecla, her youngest daughter, was in her 30s with four children of her own. Bridget had been sick with the flu.
“Our family always worked together and worked hard. Everyone had a job to do in the house from doing the dishes, sweeping and mopping the floors, making your own bed, cooking and taking care of the garden. These were responsibilities we shared as a family. We made cooking fires outside so we would know how to sustain ourselves without electricity. A dug-out area was lined with corn husks and then filled with potatoes and meat which were cooked with hot coals. Bread was made in the frying pan. Fresh fish was fried or boiled. The stock would be used to make fish soup. That’s how I was raised. Both the boys and the girls got the same lessons. I am happiest when I do things the way I did when I was raised.”
“Our language is very precise compared to English. It seems to paint a better picture. The words are very descriptive. It allows us to have a sensibility of mindfulness. We all still speak our language in our family and enjoy speaking with each other this way. Not too many families practice that anymore.” Since the Anishinabek are so close to nature, they also have a fine-tuned sense of the changes in the wildlife and in our earth. “My dad could see changes in the water and in our fish,” Lorie offers. “He told me that we would be paying for water one day. I thought that was silly then, but today we are buying water.”
“He would give us special, intimate and meaningful talks about life and the future, geared to our level of understanding. You can’t put a price on these talks,” she insists. “They were invaluable. Learning is not linear. We were taught to look at all the angles and make a good decision. We also learned from our mistakes; that way, you use your experience to improve your life. There is a reason for everything.”
Thecla’s son Kenneth is a Native language instructor in Michigan. He is a father of five from two marriages. Mary is a retired nurse in Sudbury. She has two children. Genevieve lives in Wiky and she is a mother of four. Vivian lives in Sudbury and has one child. Jerome Junior lives next door. He is the proprietor of Pheasant’s Masonry. He has a blended family with six children. Ronnie has three children. He drives large utility trucks and works at a garage. Karen is a nurse here on the Island, doing mostly administrative work. She has two children. Lorie has two children and works in a casino in Port Perry. Lastly, Gary, the youngest, lives in Toronto. He is a hair stylist and has no children.
Sadly, the family patriarch, Jerome, died on November 4, 1994 of cancer. “It has been 22 years since he left us. We have lost three of our grandchildren too. That is hard for a grandmother.” The Cornerstone Christian Assembly near Manitowaning continues to be a centre of activity for Thecla, from the various committees where events are planned, to general meetings, bake sales and bingos.
During the visit, young Zepher, grandson of Kenneth, and son of Samson-Baa (Baa is a respectful way to say ‘deceased’), came to see his great-grandmother. He was accompanied by his mother. He was beaming with the charm of youth as he gave her a hug at the end of a short visit before he left again. There is a feeling of strong family connection here.
Homecare also made a visit, leaving an item that would make life easier for Thecla. “I decided to stop driving at 82. Now I depend on others to get to church and elsewhere,” Thecla continues. “I have lots of good memories about our life here, the children growing up, the garden, our animals. The old log house I grew up in is gone now.”
“Over the years, I have made many quilts and blankets for people. I liked making them and we were happy to find out that people liked getting these too. There is a group of ladies I saw regularly. We often had quilting bees at each other’s homes and shared old times. We also caught up on stories in the neighbourhood. When I was younger, I often got helpful information that was perfect for a new mother. We could trade experiences and learn a lot from each other.”
“My favourite television show? It’s ‘Murder She Wrote.’ My favourite time of the year is fall. It is the end of summer but the colours are beautiful, our gardens are ready to be harvested and stored in the cellar. We always had horses and now Jerome has a few we can see right next door. He takes them to the Providence Bay Fair and the Wiky Fair in the fall. Running water didn’t arrive at the home until daughter Lorie was 18. Many of the other families had running water but we were alright. ‘It’s like camping,’ others would say to us. ‘Yes, camping every day,’ we would say, smiling.”
“The world outside can be dangerous. Suicides and murders are more common now, it seems. The costs of living can be very high and life can be stressful.” My hope is for the young people. Once things turn around and children start to encourage each other, life will be better. I am optimistic. Love conquers hate. Spreading this message is empowering. People ask for prayer all the time. We must love one another and accept different ways of praying.”
Thecla has counselled, unofficially, many community members in addition to her own family. “She kept us all alive,” Lorie shares. “She is a spiritual helper and she can guide us through troubled times with her wisdom and life experience. She has counselled many marriages too. My mother is not materialistic. ‘Things’ don’t matter to her very much. She is more tuned into relationships, the things that really count.” As a response, Thecla adds, “I enjoy helping where I can and I am close to my family. I have a great-granddaughter whose name is also Thecla and I was very pleased with that,” the elder shares. “I am a part of five generations where my grandchildren are becoming grandparents too. “
“The only thing I still wonder about is my lost brother Alphonse. We were never sure if he died in the war or stayed there and had a family. Perhaps we have relatives in Europe, people we have never met. It would be interesting to have them visit us here.”
“That would be cool,” Lorie adds.
“Wikwemikong is my home. I have always lived here and our family has enjoyed traditional hunting and fishing; it is a way of life for me. Manitoulin is a wonderful place and I have loved living here: the air, the sounds, the water—all beautiful. Even though there wasn’t much money, we never ran out of anything. If we needed a cabbage, we could trade a turnip for it. We were always blessed to grow our own food and we knew where to get our traditional medicines in the bush. I have visited Oklahoma and Port Perry and that was fun but being away made coming home to my family that much more special. This is where my heart is; this is where I want to be.”
John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. He that believes shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.’