A Mushkegowuk Elder and the oldest residential school survivor in the country celebrated her 110th birthday on Jan. 28.
Marguerite Wabano (nee Kioke) was a year old when Treaty 9 was first signed. She was 10 when the First World War broke out. When the Great Depression hit, she was in her 20s.
She was 35 years old when Germany invaded Poland to start the Second World War. Granny Wabano already lived 65 years when mankind first landed on the moon.
On her 110th birthday, more than 200 family members and friends gathered to celebrate with the woman affectionately known as Granny Wabano.
“She was all excited when she came in, smiling all hard,” said her granddaughter, Joyce Spence. “She was always laughing and that made others laugh.”
Granny Wabano was born in 1904 out in the bush along Ekwan River, north of what would become Attawapiskat First Nation.
Since there was no hospital, she was delivered by midwives. She was one of the youngest of six siblings to her parents, David and Hannah Kioke.
When she was about seven years old, she attended St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, located in what is now known as Fort Albany.
After two years of attending the school, her family moved farther into the bush to hide her and her siblings from the school and authorities.
As she approached adulthood, Marguerite met Raphael “Napihen” Wabano along Kattawapiskak River (known to Anglophones as Attawapiskat River).
They married and she gave birth to seven children.
However, times grew tough. The fur-bearing animals so essential to the people of northern Ontario for trading became scarce.
“It was difficult times living off the land in Attawapiskat,” Spence said. “They got close to starvation.”
Three of their children died while they were still very young.
Spence said her grandmother does not talk much of the hard days, “just the good times.”
“She has her times where she talks about things from long time ago, but she wouldn’t dwell on it, the anger part,” Spence said. “It was just the way of life, I guess.”
Napihen relocated his family to Moosonee where he sought work. He provided for his family, and even owned a nine horsepower motor and canoe, “which was considered rich back then,” Spence said.
Granny Wabano also worked at times, taking odd jobs doing laundry and cleaning at the mission and hospital.
The family settled permanently in Moosonee, where she raised her two sons and two daughters.
Her children have bared her 23 grandchildren, among them Spence.
“She’s always been the stern one,” Spence said of her grandmother compared to Napihen. “Whatever she said was right. We took it to heart.”
She added with a laugh: “We were scared of her too because she kept us in line.”
But Granny Wabano has a lighter side.
“She was always funny,” Spence said. “Play jokes or make us laugh.”
It is humour that helps keep Granny Wabano connected with her grandchildren or great-grandchildren who cannot speak Cree fluently – the only language she knows.
She would ask the kids where they had come from, and they would answer.
“Ah-won-ne-kan, Wheena?” she asked. “Who is Wheena?”
As time went on, she finally asked one of the adults. Turns out they were telling her they had come from the local “arena.”
“She always thought the kids were always coming from this person's house,” Spence said. “She ever laugh when she found out what was the arena.”
She was also thrifty and always advised her family not to waste.
“Like she would cut up a(n empty) bag of chips and make a necklace of out it,” Spence said.
And she would give gifts like such a necklace to visitors, another trait Granny Wabano tries to pass on.
“Always be generous to other people because you never know what they’re going through,” Spence said.
Having lived so long, Granny Wabano is often amused at the technology and conveniences the world has developed.
Spence was on hand to see her granny go on escalators for the first time. Granny Wabano laughed, and said in Cree, “Ever do everything these white people.”
“She was amazed at that,” Spence said, “but nothing surprises her at the same time because they’re always doing something.”
Living so long also saw Granny Wabano experience the loss of loved ones. This includes Napihen, who passed when the couple were in their 90’s. They had been married for more than 75 years.
These days, Granny Wabano continues to live alone in the apartment she and her husband had shared for years, though she does get help for her children or grandchildren.
She likes to eat traditional foods, like geese, fish and dumplings.
“She can whip up a mean bannock,” Spence said with a laugh. “She makes the best bannock in the whole world.”
And she drinks traditional teas and medicines.
“You’ll always find a pot of, bark tea, I guess you’ll call it,” Spence said. “You’ll never find any pharmaceutical medicines in her house. She refused to take those pills. She relies on traditional medicines.”
Granny Wabano uses a walker but is still mobile. At her recent birthday party, she walked up and down the stairs on her own.
Although her hearing and eyesight are slowly fading, she is still alert.
She has also maintained her Christian faith and attends mass regularly.
“If a person’s late (to pick her up), she’ll walk alone if she has to,” Spence said.
Granny Wabano falls ill at times but always manages to recover.
Spence said when her granny was 99, doctors put in a pacemaker for her heart. But years later, doctors discovered the pacemaker had stopped working and did not know for how long.
But Granny Wabano’s heart continues to beat.
To date, Granny Wabano has 23 grandkids, 77 great-grandchildren and 81 great -great-grandchildren.
“And there’s a few more coming out this year,” Spence said with a laugh.
And it’s the youth that captures Granny Wabano’s heart, as was evident at her 110th birthday part.
“Just seeing all the little kids, that’s what she liked the most I think,” Spence said.
Having lived for more than a century-and-decade, what is one of Granny Wabano’s keys to life?
Poonenamook – Cree for “forgive others.”
“It as always her main message throughout life. That’s what carried her throughout the years,” Spence said. “We’re so blessed to have her.”
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