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The Understated Greatness of Violet Hansen

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Violet Hansen has a long scar running down the middle of her chest. I know this because she showed it to me quite willingly – without provocation, almost. That’s the only information that I gathered about her without prodding.

Her home in Waterways is reminiscent of your own grandma’s: family photos envelop the refrigerator, the floor smells of fresh cleaning product, and a collection of spoons hang on the wall.

Her white hair is slightly disheveled when she answers the door, but it’s likely that she put it up hastily, in response to the heat that permeated the city that day. She invites me in easily, leading me straight into the kitchen where a small pot and a can of soup are waiting on the countertop. She roots around the cutlery drawer until she finds an old, dull knife. Still not saying a word, she brings the knife to the rim of the can and butts the top of it with her fist. Whack! Whack! Can opened.

I want to ask her if she’s always opened cans like that but I’m certain that she’ll think I’m a dork. She’ll be 86 this August.

A few months before I met Violet, YMM publisher Krista Balsom and I had lunch. Krista wanted to incorporate a Metis perspective in the magazine – sensing that the relatively large Metis population in Wood Buffalo isn’t adequately represented in local media. It was decided to get some insights into the life of an Elder.

I signed up, and contacted Metis Local 1935, who put me in touch with Violet. “You might not get a hold of her immediately, though,” warned Renee Stanley, who works at Metis Local as an Administrative Assistant. “This is Senior’s Week, and I’m pretty sure she has appointments each day.”

Silence has never sat well with my family. We’re a loud bunch, thanks to a hearing loss on my part, a boisterous cousin with undiagnosed ADHD, and a grandmother who equates a lack of chit-chat with emotional unrest. Silence is decidedly not golden in my family, so I was distressed by Violet’s one-word answers and sly, sideward glances in place of verbal responses.

Our interview started like this:

“So, Violet. Tell me about your childhood.”

“What’s to tell?”

“Okay. So, what do you think of Metis youth today?”

“Nothing. It’s none of my business.”

“Tell me about your husband…”

“He worked on a boat.”

I immediately know that this article will fall short of the word count promised to Krista.

Violet’s an Elder. It’s not an official title and it comes without ceremony. To become an Elder is to be respected by your community and sought for advice.

Given the general flow of the first 10 minutes of our conversation, I assume that any advice dispensed by Violet is practical and free of the clichés that the generations after her have picked up on since the advent of self-help television.

I’m about to ask her what sort of legacy she’d like to leave behind when a man came into the kitchen through a side door. He introduced himself as her son and I’m under the impression that Violet had asked him to be present during the interview. He wants to know what I’m here for, so I tell him.

“Oh! Then tell her about setting up trap lines with Uncle Sonny in the middle of the winter and getting stuck by breaking ice,” he starts, addressing both his mother and me at the same time, while taking a seat across from me at the table. “Eight months pregnant, and mom was drilling a hole in the ice to get water every day. She never complained – that’s just how life was back then.”

I’m grateful for his willingness to tell me what his mother is too modest to share. He tells me more about Violet: how the little tomboy and champion muskrat catcher living in Fort Chip grew up to be a mother of seven after marrying Lloyd Hansen, a Norwegian native in 1958. He tells me of the days when Waterways was a more important town than Fort McMurray and a trip to the grocery store was more of a social expedition than anything else. Besides, they already caught their meat in the wild and harvested their own vegetables.

Violet’s verbal economy isn’t to be confused with a shrinking personality. Mrs. Hansen is quick witted, friendly, and lively. She goes to bingo every night and regularly closes down the Legion. The morning of our interview, she got home at 3am and dances a little jig when her son tells me that Violet was back to bingo exactly one month to the day following major heart surgery.

Violet turns down the television in the adjacent room and comes back with a giant book that she plops onto the kitchen table. There are post-it notes acting as bookmarks throughout. She turns to a page and says, “This is my mom.” I look down and see a photo of Jenny Flett.

Jenny Flett is something of a local legend, having served as the region’s most prolific midwife before passing away at the age of 101. Jenny (actual name: Ellen Elizabeth Frazer) was born in Fort Chipewyan in 1908 and delivered exactly 487 children by her 75th birthday – all safely and without any deaths.

Violet relays this information matter-of-factly and then turns to stir the soup in the pot. Once she’s out of earshot, her son said something to me that made me understand Violet a lot better.

“Actually, you should know that even though my grandmother delivered all those babies, she needed a lot of help. Mom was the oldest girl so it was her responsibility to look after the mothers once the babies were born. Mom was the one that stayed with the families and cooked and cleaned – including doing all the laundry by hand - and looked after the household for the 10 days that the mother was laid up. Mom was with the families longer than my grandmother was.”

Violet’s son – her youngest - is immensely proud and protective of his mother. “I just want people to know that it wasn’t just my grandmother. My mom did so much work – from such a young age – and she never looked for any credit or recognition.”

The other thing that Violet doesn’t come right out and tell you is that she’s a descendant of Simon Fraser (as in the Fraser River. As in Simon Fraser University). It’s a revelation that’s uncovered a full 40 minutes into the conversation.

Maybe she didn’t come right out and tell me about these things because she’s not from the indulgent “tell all” generation, or maybe she didn’t tell me about these things because I simply didn’t take enough time to get to know her first. My stomach sinks when I realize that I invited myself into her home and prattled off a series of very direct questions before really introducing myself to her. I stood in her kitchen, waved a tape recorder in her direction and asked her to tell me her opinions of her grandchildren’s generation. I’m the worst.

Thankfully, Violet has a certain graciousness that alleviates me of too much embarrassment. She’s the best.