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Lest We Forget Margaret McKirdy

There are many kinds of heroes: heroes on the battle fields and heroes in everyday life or in the fields of art and science. This is a tribute to a heroine from the Canadian garden of muses, whom I had the privilege to meet and know.
My unforgettable friendship with the late Margaret McKirdy started almost twelve years ago, at a time when my wife and I, often traveled to Alberta. Ours was a painful pilgrimage made several times a year in order to visit a dear invalid wasting away at a hospital in Edmonton. While there, we took accommodation at the convent of some nuns who had built the hospital and took care, with devotion and love, of the terminally ill, long before the government took over the institution. Because of the modern crisis of vocations, which has lately resulted in a surplus of living space, the nuns had converted part of the monastic buildings, for economic reasons, into a conference center and hotel. Due to its proximity to the hospital, this was for us the ideal shelter.

Usually it took a day’s drive to make the 1,100 kilometre trip, but in the special year when this story starts, our “golden age” manifested its ill effects, forcing us to halt somewhere on the road. The map showed that Valemount, through which we always zoomed without stopping, was located almost halfway to our destination, and in the provincial tourist guide we found a place to stay overnight. Valley and Mountain Wear and Bed and Breakfast, now gone, was kept by an adventurous and enterprising lady, a professional engineer by trade, who, from engineering consulting and fashion to cosmetics and strass jewellery, was making everything when she didn’t ski or skate. It was from her, at breakfast, that we first heard about Margaret McKirdy, an influential local artist.

Valemount is a young community even according to New World standards; it was only in 1906 that Fulton Alexander McKirdy, a Canadian from Ontario, who occasionally worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, settled in a still unpopulated area 18 kilometres south of Tęte Jaune Cache, known as Swift Creek. In 1914, the railway, in its expansion towards the West Coast, crossed through Yellowhead Pass, and a train station was built at Swift Creek, followed by the opening of a logging and tie-making camp. In 1927, the station was moved two kilometres south and the village which already had a store, post office and a school, was renamed Valemount, derived from “Vale amid the Mountains”. Fulton McKirdy had four sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Angus, married Margaret, the future sculptress and writer.

Margaret Eleanor McKirdy (née Lebans) was born in 1922 in High Prairie, Alberta. After spending her adolescence in Vancouver, she came to Valemount where got married and made it her home. In the1970s she became involved in some pottery clubs. Endowed with an exceptional intuition, natural talent and a special sense of humour, though lacking formal training in plastic art, she started immediately making sculptures. Using the elementary technique called pinch pottery she created in a few years hundreds of statuettes resembling relatives, neighbours and other characters from her community, which have a mysterious quality about them. Modelled with a keen sense of history and local colour and masterfully expressing the psychology of the people represented, her works speak to the posterity of life in Valemount in the last century.

A loyal contributor for years to the local bi-weekly Canoe Mountain Echo, Margaret McKirdy quit sculpting in favour of journalism in 1986, becoming for a short period, the editor of that newspaper when it changed name and ownership. But she was more interested in creative writing per se and among many newspaper articles and several short stories, authored a novel entitled The Colour of Gold. Published in 1997 by Caitlin Press, the book is based on a real crime committed in 1898 near Mount Robson, which Margaret learned about while carrying out research in the provincial archives. It is the story of a Cree woman, Adelaide, whose husband, Alex McCauley, a young Métis guide and trapper, was assassinated by a white prospector. Adelaide appealed for justice to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, but after a long struggle was defeated due to discriminatory social attitudes prevalent in those times. Thoroughly researched and written in a lively voice Margaret McKirdy’s novel makes intriguing reading that is reminiscent of James Oliver Curwood’s books.

During that first stop in Valemount we somehow missed Margaret, but on our return we found her at home. She lived together with Angus—very fittingly—on McKirdy Road. A little octogenarian woman, she was full of energy and high spirited wit despite age’s shortfalls. In addition to her great talent she had a generous heart. I had just finished writing the first volume of my trilogy and, when she heard about the difficulties I encountered in the publishing world, she suggested sending her the manuscript. Afterwards, she warmly, though unsuccessfully, recommended my book to her publisher. Following that first meeting our friendship flourished by correspondence, telephone discussions and through our periodic visits to Valemount. The last time I saw her was in 2010. Then I entered a period of physical decline and when it passed Margaret was no longer at home. In the meantime, Angus had passed away, and she couldn’t manage by herself. As she was from a big but busy family, nobody volunteered to look after her, and Margaret McKirdy was moved to a hospital in McBride, where she passed away on her 94th birthday.

Sadly, Margaret McKirdy’s electronic obituary of only eight lines, listing all her many loving relatives, doesn’t say a single word about her fabulous artistic inheritance, the brilliant oeuvre of this extraordinary woman.
In writing this tribute I gratefully acknowledge information received from Mrs. Jeannette Lorenz of Valemount and from an anonymous curator of the local museum.

Gabriel Watermiller B.C.    6/24/2017


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