I spent some of my growing up years in Yellowknife, in the Canadian Northwest Terrritories. I worked there, off and on, during high school and also, before, during, and after university. Poverty, in Yellowknife in the 1970’s and 80’s when I was there, was very much in your face. I mean, it was this crazy place where some people made ridiculous amounts of money, and some people spent the night sleeping on the Post Office floor. I remember going to my Saturday job at Joan’s Fashions in the old YK Mall, and my first stop would be the Post Office. Often, I would have to literally step over sleeping bodies to get to the mail box. Most of them, I knew by name. Everyone knew them by name. They were the town characters. Local drunks.

I especially remember Margaret Thrasher. A big woman, with a red face and a loud voice. Her husband was a small man who usually walked a few steps behind her. I’ve thought of Margaret often through the years. Once, she ran for mayor and sold her campaign posters for $5.00 each. She had a son named Ray who was adopted at six months old and who was renamed Eric Schweig. Schweig became an actor, most notably playing Uncas in the movie The Last of the Mohicans.

Margaret was a character, that is for sure.

Margaret drank too much. I know alcohol and other addictions played a huge role in her life. I don’t know all the things that played huge roles. I don’t really understand it. But I remember talking about it. I remember talking about it, once, with my dad.

We were talking about poverty, and First Nation stereotypes, and why people stay in a poverty situation when there is so much opportunity, and how surely in this country anyone could get a job if he wanted to. And Dad told a story about a conversation he’d once had in the north with a woman he was working with.

At the time, Dad was a retired elementary school principal and was working as a consultant with the Department of Education. He was on a committee consulting about something educational, and a First Nation woman was on the committee with him. They got talking about these things, these poverty things, and Dad said something like, I grew up poor. My parents didn’t have much, but I still was able to go to school and have a career and make a living.

And the woman said something to Dad that I’ve never forgotten. She said, Yes, but your parents didn’t expect to stay poor, and they didn’t expect you to stay poor. Their poverty was circumstantial, not cultural, and they expected you to be successful.

Am I wrong in thinking she was talking about the difference between hopeful and hopeless?

And that idea, that there is a culture of poverty, has influenced my thinking and my attitudes towards marginal people groups since.

Dad, in his post last week, talked about dignity in the face of poverty. He talked about Victor, a poor man with a poor education and poor future prospects. But Victor wanted different for his children. He had hope.

And hope, I think, births dignity.

I’d like to have a visit with Victor. I’d like to know what motivates him, in his circumstances, to be chairman of the Parents Association and to exemplify, as dad wrote last week, what it means to make do with what you have, to be gracious when you receive, and to do your part in making good things happen for your community.

I’d like to learn from Victor. I’d like to take what he has discovered, and share it with others.

Is hopeful dignity something that can be learned?

*** posted by Janelle


Today’s post is part of the My Dad and Me series here on the blog. Check back next Tuesday to read more of Dad’s thoughts as we continue this conversation. Click the link at the top of the page to read previous posts in this series.