A few months ago I posted on our local Facebook community board looking for someone who was skilled in euthanizing a chicken using the cervical dislocation method. I know folks who would have offered to decapitate my bird, but I wanted to keep her respiratory tract intact so I could send her off for a necropsy. Margaret, who I’d never met before, was the only person who responded, saying she felt my heart in that post, sensing I wanted the best for my hen. She’s one of those women with a warm, friendly manner that conveyed everything will be fine. Margaret double-checked that I still wanted to go ahead with my decision and I affirmed that I did.
I left my hen, Ruby, with the flock, enjoying her day right up until Margaret arrived. She took Ruby and disappeared down my driveway. When she re-emerged, with my lifeless bird in her arms, Margaret told me she said a prayer for her. She didn’t struggle or squawk, which we both took as a sign it was her time to go.
I’m not the huggy type, but Margaret inspired a desire in me to embrace her, but due to Covid we said a hands-off goodbye and I thanked her for ending Ruby’s life humanely. She conceded that she wouldn’t have minded a hen for the stew pot, but was happy to turn her over to the pathologist for a necropsy.
I emailed her afterwards and asked if she’d sit down for a chat as part of my series ‘Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours’. We set up a time to meet at her place. She ended up being called off island due to a family issue and had no way to contact me. I arrived to find no one at home, but had a good snoop around her English-style garden before deciding to call it a day.
We met up a couple of days after and, then again, a few weeks later – both times at my place. After a hot spell the weather had unexpectedly taken a turn. It was cool and rainy so we sat, socially distanced, inside. Our second chat came on the heels of an unprecedented heat wave so we opted for my covered porch with a pleasant breeze. Margaret’s one of those people with a big laugh and no guile. I felt like she wasn’t invested in putting forth the best version of herself, but her truth, warts and all.
I usually try to get a sense of who someone is by hearing about their life chronologically and then filling in the blanks. Margaret and I spent over five hours in conversation, jumping back and forth, yet I still felt we barely touched the surface. At each visit she had to head back home to tend to her husband, David.
It was an easy time, spent with someone I felt I’d met before. We’re the same age, come from British backgrounds, are interested in genealogy and family trees, appreciate nature and gardening, love language and ideas. We’ve thought about the issues of race and class and worked hard to reject the prevailing narrative, instead working towards social justice. In short, it was easy to get off topic and have the conversation take twists and turns so we both forgot what we had started talking about.
Margaret, a fifth generation Canadian, was born in Victoria to a pioneer family. Her ancestors came from the Orkney Islands in Scotland to British Columbia’s Fort Victoria on contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company, as school teachers.
Her parents, a master carpenter/plasterer and a physiotherapist, had four kids, of which Margaret is the eldest. Her dad was raised ‘dirt poor’ at a time in which there was no social safety net. It was an era when folks were taught to put food on the table, clothes on their back and a roof over their head. The family hunted and fished for food. On one foggy hunting trip, Margaret’s dad mistook a doe for a buck, killing her and leaving two orphaned fawns. He felt obliged to kill them as well since there was no way to raise them. That experience compelled him to lay down his gun.
As kids, they were taught compassion for other living beings and didn’t need science to tell them we’re all connected. He was a ‘regular working-class joe’, but was a forward thinker interested in meditation and quantum physics.
Margaret talked about her problematic behaviours as a small child, for which there was no diagnosis at the time. The cobbler’s family may not have shoes, and the health care provider couldn’t acknowledge when her own kids needed help. Margaret was kept busy with soccer, ballet, softball, Brownies and Cadets in attempt to focus her energy. Her mother, who had four children under the age of five, was prescribed Valium in order to cope.
One of her neighbours, who Margaret babysat for, owned Claremont Poultry. At age 13, she got her first job there: collecting and grading eggs and catching chickens who were destined for the table. She recalls the brutal living conditions of a factory farm (which aren’t so different for many chickens today).
Margaret grew up feeling like something was wrong, but not knowing what it was. “I always walked to the tune of a different drummer. I started to connect with people by being bad, because it got me attention.” She packed her bags and left home at 15, ending up living on the streets of Vancouver.
She moved around the province and had a variety of jobs. Margaret went to school and trained as a health care aide, a cook’s assistant, got her journeyman’s ticket in motorcycle mechanics and did an apprenticeship in automotive parts specializing in motorcycles. In hindsight, it would have been more lucrative to have worked in the parts department at a car dealership. Working in the world of motorcycles barely paid much more than minimum wage.
Along the way, she had three daughters, all now millennials, doing well. Two are on Vancouver Island, one on the mainland, with five kids of their own between them. Her youngest, who identifies as gender non-binary is a journalism student active in the movement against logging old growth forests. Like many mother-daughter relationships there are stresses and a reticence, on their part, to let go of some resentments about their tumultuous early years. I think like lots of folks, it’s easy to point out the perceived shortcomings of your parents, without also acknowledging the gifts they have passed on your way. Her father used to say “Whatever you gave your mother and me you’ll get ten times back.” That may be true, but she is able to appreciate the humour in his prediction. At just shy of 60, Margaret’s more interested in looking forward rather than fretting over the past.
Two decades ago, she was finally diagnosed as being bipolar. Had that information been available sooner it would have given her some insight and the opportunity to receive treatment. “You never see the world as the world sees you. It felt like I was hanging on to an electric fence. I’ve tried to make sense out of my life: why am I here, when so many others who have walked the same path, ended up so differently.”
In 2009, she had the opportunity to move to Gabriola Island and rented a modest 1940’s house with a view through the tall fir and cedar trees to the ocean just across the road. She’s on ½ acre adjacent to an old homestead on 5 acres with another 50 acre parcel behind her. Her decision to move into that place would prove fortuitous later on.
Her connection to First Nations folks goes back decades: boyfriends and best friends and varied people who came in and out of her life. Throughout the decades, life always brought her back to Indigenous people.
By chance, Margaret gave a ride home to a local Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations man and when she dropped him off she met his uncle David, who was carving. Over the next few months she visited often, watching him carve, having tea and getting to know the family. David was caring for his wife Diane of 25 years who had dementia and Margaret saw his dedication firsthand. When Diane died, David invited her to the funeral. Noticing he had fallen into a deep depression Margaret invited him to stay in her outbuilding as a place to heal and to carve.
As time passed, they got closer and became a couple. “My role in my family is to understand the context of who I am as a woman, where I came from and my life’s journey. I’m in a unique position in that I was adopted, married and named in the Big House. I’m different, in that I was given an honour that’s not just a token. I was named Woman of Fire.”
As someone married to a First Nations man she is acutely aware and insightful about her own ties to a colonial past.
“I stand in the light of my own truth, with ancestors who were Scottish, colonizers, settlers, academics new to this land. Their eccentricities found a home in my spirit. I hear the bagpipes as loud as the drum in my heart. My role is to act as a bridge between two communities so divided. To be humble, respectful and treat other people with dignity. I can challenge the narrative controlled by the colonizers and be the vessel who speaks the languages of both worlds.”
David’s has had some health challenges and so has she. In 2018, after scraping her leg on some barbed wire Margaret contracted MRSA in her leg. It became a serious bone infection that required a two month hospital stay. She said that she “loved her husband to bits, but you give birth to your first child and marry another.” As it turns out her convalescence was a bit of a much needed vacation. The hospital was short on rooms, so her bed was placed in a lounge area with a large window and flat screen television. Had the risk not been so serious she might have enjoyed the stay even more.
A month later I dropped by Margaret’s place for one last chat. As I arrived Jessica, the home care nurse, was just leaving having done an assessment to get some support for David. Since Covid 19 hit his health has declined and Margaret’s put some of her own activities on hold in order to care for him. Like many of us, the last 18 months has given her the time and opportunity to refocus.
In 2015, the rental house they were living in was going to be put up for sale. Margaret presented an unconventional offer- they would rent to own it – and were happily surprised when it was accepted. The last payment was made ten months ago and they are secure in owning their own place. No longer just tenants they can put some much needed work into upgrading the house and outbuilding. She’s got plans to have a small gallery for Indigenous artists and carvers on the ground level and her workshop upstairs.
We toured around their property: there’s a grassy front lawn and part of the back is devoted to her medicinal and culinary plants. There’s no lawn there, it was dug up and replaced by species that Margaret uses to make plant medicine with knowledge gleaned from reading books by pioneers, learning from her Indigenous friends, and through her own intuition and dreams. She gave me one of her CBD salves for my dog when she had some abscesses from infected spear grass seeds embedded in her skin.
Dotted through the garden and at the very back of the ½ acre are the vestiges of the old orchard: crab apple, three types of apple and two kinds of plum. My garden is in serious need of thinning and I suggested that once the weather is cooler Margaret should come by, shovel in hand, and dig out whatever plants she’d like.
Another of her making lemonade out of lemons project was to recognize her tendency for hoarding and start clearing out what she didn’t need. The new rule is one thing in, ten things out which sounds highly sensible to me. Crossed off the list are future trips to second-hand and thrift stores.
When Margaret first came to visit I had a broody hen sitting on eggs. Nine of them hatched and all were healthy. At two weeks of age I saw that one of the little pullets had made a hard landing coming out of the coop and her leg went off at an alarming angle. I was concerned that she had a slipped Achilles’ tendon, which wouldn’t have ended well. She took a few days to recover and wouldn’t you know it, she did it again, though, this time, the results were maybe not quite as dramatic. She spent two weeks limping about.
The downside of keeping chickens is having the full responsibility for their well being in your hands. Of course, I pondered what might happen if she didn’t get better. Throughout her recovery I could see she was a fighter with a real desire to live. She’s smaller than her siblings, but that hasn’t held her back. Now six weeks on she’s fully recovered. I name all my birds and in honour of my new ‘neighbour’ I’ve called this little survivor Margaret.
This last visit, since we’re both vaccinated, I gave Margaret a big hug when we parted and hoped that when I went home to transform my notes that I was able to do justice to her story and convey the tenacity and spirit of Woman Of Fire.
Thanks to Margaret for sharing her story and providing additional photos. The featured photo depicts Margaret at a march to bring awareness to the issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW).