Now & Then: Leonard Cywink

The Anderson Lake Anishinabe Spiritual Centre or Wassean-Dimi-Kaning is lucky to have a handyman generalist like Leonard on staff. He loves his work, which he happens to be very good at. Accompanied by his dog Katie, he fixes anything that goes wrong at the centre from plumbing, electrical fixes to patching shingles on many rooftops. He also takes care of the grounds, cutting grass in summer and ploughing snow in the winter. 

“It took me some time to find my ideal job, but I have it here, starting at 7 am to about 4:30 pm each weekday. I meet my buddies for lunch in town, but I spend most of my time here maintaining the property. At 4:30 pm, Katie and I pick up my daughter Leanne and head home to my wife Lisa.”

Today, the writer met Leonard at Anderson Lake and was treated to lunch in town with the boys. They included two friends of Leonard’s and Father Gerry McDougal’s. 

“Eleven of us were raised by my grandparents in Whitefish Falls. The family homestead was across from Les Williamson’s General Store. I was the baby, born on January 30, 1948. The midwife was Mrs. Pudvin who gave me my second name, Wayne. My mother Mary remarried Walter Kilworth and had nine more children: Douglas, Allison, Sharon, David, Robert, Donald, John, Joanne and Tracy.” 

“My Pop, Samuel Cywink, was from the Ukraine and my Gramma, Agatha Bedassige, came from Wiky but settled in Whitefish Falls. Pop was a railroad-section foreman for CPR. When he was still young, at 13, he had to take on a man’s role, driving a team of horses and taking on many adult responsibilities. Years later, this may have encouraged him to get us to do chores, like collecting wood or water when we were young.”

Leonard as a toddler.

“I was 13 when we got running water, and that meant we didn’t have to carry the water each day. I can remember the indoor bathroom and how amazed Gramma was to see water coming out of a tap. Pop taught us many of life’s valued lessons. He saw things as either right or wrong and didn’t condone fighting of any kind. Pop was also very proud of his family, most of whom lived in Whitefish Falls. Through my Gramma, we are also related to the Pitawanakwats of Wikwemikong and Birch Island.”

“Entrepreneur was a title Pop might have earned. He came up with ideas to keep us busy and make a little money too. He asked us to collect empty bottles, which would be loaded into the trunk. Then we would pile ourselves into the back seat of the car (kids never sat in the front of the car) and head to the bottle return. Some of the money we got for the bottles would go for treats from Turners in Little Current.”

“When I was about five, a nurse, Etta, who worked in Espanola, asked my Gramma if she could adopt me. She had taken a liking to me and was always buying me little gifts of clothing or feeding me cookies at her house. She was dating a fellow in Whitefish Falls. Both grandparents firmly declined her offer,” Leonard shares. 

“I remember a small accident when I was still young. We were playing in the basement and I had to catch someone. I fell and hit my head on a pipe, likely sustaining a concussion. I recall being spaced out for a while, but there were no permanent changes.”

“Elementary school was at Whitefish Falls. The reverend’s wife, Mrs. Stump, was our teacher at St. Augustine Mission (Anglican) School. I was Catholic, but the Anglican school was the closest. I liked art and recess the best. I got through the academic courses but I always favoured working with my hands, and I still do.” Leonard remembers getting the strap for climbing a tree. “Looking back, it seems that I had plenty of chances to write different versions of ‘I will not…..’ on the board 50 times after school.”

Leonard at 17.

“One school project that left a lasting memory was the quest to find the names of the very first families to settle the Whitefish Falls area before the roads and railways brought more people. Whitefish Falls was settled at the mouth of the river. Gramma told me that the first settlers here were the Kezhikobiness, the Eskimaa and the Biidaasige families.” 

“Our Gramma spent most of her time with us. She taught us about respect and not to impose our will on anyone. She was an awesome person, one in a million, and she knew how to make us behave. One time, our uncle came in early in the morning after a night of partying. He was not a church-goer. He sat at the counter and started to growl’ about various things. The priest was expected for brunch at our house that day. We all took turns to host the priest for these meals. Our uncle warned us, ‘I’m not going to hide,’ he said. Gramma responded, ‘You don’t have to hide, just make yourself scarce’.”

“Gramma liked to travel in the summer. Occasionally, we would visit my oldest uncle, Joe, in Toronto. We had free passes for Canadian Pacific because Pop worked there. My cousin there was only a year older than I was, so it was always fun to go, even though I recall that my cousin never wanted to sit still.” 

A happy Leonard at 65.

High school was in Espanola and Leonard finished his Grade 12 with a 90 percent in French before he left for his first official job. “My teacher Mr. Chalifaux suggested I keep up my French because it would be good for my career. I didn’t go to Grade 13 because I already had a job as a carpenter’s helper, building homes in Espanola for George Trufeld Construction. Even though the job lasted only two years, I learned to do most of the tasks involved in building a house and these skills have served me well over the years.”

Leonard was 19 when his Pop died, and he took on the responsibility of looking after his Gramma. He also helped his uncle who had inherited his Pop’s estate. Leonard helped him with setting up trustees and the details of wills. 

His next job was for INCO in Sudbury and he could board with his aunt and uncle who owned a home in the city. He helped them with repairs to the house while he took on the 7 am to 3 pm shift. “I often found extra time on my hands after work, so I decided to look for a French course at college level. I couldn’t find one, so I headed for Cambrian and took small engine repair in 1970. I was 22 years old. I did well on the course and INCO put me on as a garage helper, but I was soon bumped out of that job by someone with seniority.”

“I left Sudbury and came home to Whitefish Falls. For two more years, I did repairs for people living in the Bay of Islands area. One man from Indiana, a vice-president of the Biddle Screw Company, hired me to build a boathouse. He trusted me to do the work, unsupervised. I sent him photos of the progress on the job. He sent me money periodically. The Indiana man came back just as I was putting the finishing touches on the boathouse. He was very happy with the work and he wanted me to become an employee for his company. I asked him if I would be working inside his factory and he said ‘yes.’ I thanked him, but politely declined his kind offer. I preferred to work outside.” 

Leonard and Lisa share a song.

Leonard married Judy White shortly before his Gramma died. Gramma was happy that he had found someone before she left this world. When that marriage dissolved, Leonard made new plans. “The seasonal work at home was not fulfilling, so I took a big step and headed for Manitoba. This was the province my Pop had arrived at when he first came to Canada. Over time, he had slowly worked his way east until he settled at Whitefish Falls.”

“I wound up about 90 minutes west of Winnipeg at Notre Dame de Lourdes School Division. While there, I went back to college to learn blueprint reading and take some engineering and electricity courses. I got my fifth -class engineering diploma. These courses were tightly related to jobs I was doing at the time, specifically working with boilers.”

Leonard returned to Whitefish Falls in 1990 to attend Uncle Nick Cywink’s funeral. Afterwards, Leonard returned to Manitoba with the knowledge and conviction that he would be coming home again soon. “When I moved back to Whitefish Falls, it was hard to get work at the time, because all the recent references were in Manitoba, so I floated for a year, staying with family and friends.” 

Then Leonard got a fresh, new idea from an ad he saw about hiring a husband. “I put a similar add in the Sudbury paper, ‘Hire a husband’ to do the handiwork that a spouse didn’t have time to do or couldn’t do. I got a lot of responses and luckily, I had already moved to Sudbury. After six months, I had to take the ad down because I had too much work to do.”

“It had all started with my neighbour in Sudbury. She had called a landscaping company to cut the grass and repair a fence for her mother in Garson, but they never showed up. At first, the daughter said no to ‘hiring a husband’ for her mother, but eventually she agreed, and we are still friends with her family today. I knew them well enough to attend her mother’s funeral.”

Leonard’s 70th birthday with wife Lisa, daughter Leanne and mum.

“An Anishinabe Spiritual Centre ad looking for a part-time maintenance man was referred to me by a friend in 2006, while I was still in Sudbury, and I decided to apply because it would get me back on the Island. I got the part-time job, still working in Sudbury, but living at home. I soon found the Fathers needed someone to do groundskeeping as well. I suggested that both jobs could be combined so I would have full-time work. The motion to accept that job-blending was agreed to by their council, and I had the job I really wanted.”

“The décor here at the center is rustic and basic. My work needs to reflect the spartan aspects of the Jesuit mandate. Father Gerry McDougall jokes that living here is the next best thing to camping.” 

Lisa McGregor, daughter of Olive McGregor, had come into Leonard’s life when he saw her at church in Birch Island in 2001. Her marriage had ended that year. Her children Holly and Jonathon were seven and five at the time. 

“I was still working in Sudbury,” Leonard explains. “She needed help with her chimney. I was happy that I met Lisa and we started to date. A little sister, Leanne, was born in 2003. After Leanne was born the family moved to Sudbury for about a year. Lisa and the children moved back home to Birch Island in 2005 while Leonard finished his work in Sudbury before being hired on full-time at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre. “We married in Memorial Park in Sudbury on November 11, 2006.” 

“My wife Lisa is very industrious and I’m very proud of her. She loves her family and she is good with crafts and always comes up with great ideas for new things. She is an excellent cook and she could make any recipe. I also love to sing with Lisa. She is a self-taught guitarist and she leads the music at the local church.”

“When I think of my daughter Leanne, I smile with pride too. She is very gifted in both academia and in the musical area. She favours the trumpet and has played with many adults, much older than she is. She could play a trumpet in the symphony one day. She also plays the piano, saxophone, drums and both acoustic and electric guitars.” 

“She was part of three bands last year in high school and part of Rise Above, a band that played at the Haweater event in Little Current this past summer.” She is likely destined for the University of Toronto in a science field. She could consider tutoring music students to help pay for her tuition. She has already achieved her Grade 8 level in piano, with honours, at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.”

“Katie, our pup, belonged to a friend whom I was helping. He had three dogs. We had to bury two of them when they died of old age, but Katie was left. When her owner had to go to the hospital, and didn’t come home again, we inherited her, and she has been a terrific dog, helping me during the day and gravitating to Leanne after school.”

“I was fortunate to be given occupational skills throughout my life and I have tried to put them to good use. This job here has been a true blessing. I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. The fathers and brothers are very appreciative. I have gained a lot from the Jesuits; they are very learned people and hopefully some of this has rubbed off on me.” Both priests and brothers have worked with First Nations people in this region for an impressive 169 years, starting in Wiikwemkoong in 1844. 

“Rosaries are now on my list of items to create. They are sold in the little store in the main building. I would still like to make a medallion and a bracelet too. The bracelets could hold all 15 stations of the cross and that would be special,” Leonard continues enthusiastically. “The only downside is that we have to charge some money for these items, even though they are religious artifacts. I would prefer an option for donations instead.”

Strengths attributed to Leonard would be his ability to see a glass as being half full rather than half empty. He has a penchant for working well with his hands. Leonard is part of the Parish Council in Birch Island where he helps as much as he can. He is also a people person who enjoys meeting and chatting with new people and old friends.

“I don’t like to see anyone being intimidated. It is a bad word and deed. My Gramma felt we should not be imposing our will on anyone. If I see intimidation, I must intervene at the risk of being the target of anger myself. We are all equals, and nobody should be taking advantage of anyone else.”

“What am I afraid of? Snakes, I guess. When I was a boy, a friend and I were picking berries and playing with two snakes. I wound up with a thrown snake wrapped around my neck. I panicked and have never liked snakes since. What would I still like to do? I would still like work in a soup kitchen for a while. I have a good life, a great job, a terrific wife and child. God has given me so much. When I see the needy, my heart goes out to them. I still have myself to give.” 

Leonard and his family went west two years ago and saw relatives in Manitoba. “That was fun. I also see some of my school chums from time to time too. Many seem to be content in their retirement. I like to think I am still quite active, and I don’t ever plan to retire. I can still manage my 32-foot extension ladder and all my other tools. I would like to think that when it’s my time to go, I might perish while working on a project. I prefer that to ending my life in an institution.”

“If I could go back in time would I change anything? No, nothing. God put me here for a reason. The holy spirit directs us each day and if we are on the right path, things will go well. If we are on the wrong path, we must work to get back to the right path.” Leonard found himself drifting a little in his early adult years, but he got the education he needed, and he was brave enough to move in the direction he coveted. The route that gave him a wonderful family, friends, work, and a good life.

“I had tried out many jobs over the years: framing homes, drywall, electrical work, plumbing, gardening and repairs. I asked myself, ‘do I want to do any of these jobs exclusively for the rest of my life?’ I answered ‘no, I want to do all of them, and I want to work outdoors.’ That is the ideal job I wanted, and I have it here at the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre.” 

At this point Father McDougal drops in to join Leonard for a coffee. Father shares that Leonard instinctively knows what needs to be done around here. “When asked to bring something on a winter day, Leonard will grab the snow shovel and clear the snow off the walk for us on the way to do the task. We acknowledge all he does for us and we are very happy with his work.”

“There is no other place like Whitefish Falls and Manitoulin,” Leonard sums up. “We have lots of fresh air, no hurricanes, earthquakes or floods when compared to the rest of the world. Our house is not going to be washed away. We have four seasons. Latitude 46 is the greatest place in the world. We just need to learn to stop, take in the beauty around us and listen to what is being said to us by the higher-ups, and follow that path. That, along with living in this part of the world, will bring peace and happiness.”