Gail Cyr and her son Jesse Wheeler had very different upbringings.
“I can’t imagine growing up the way my mother did,” said Wheeler. “My life in comparison is bathed in milk and honey.”
While Wheeler enjoyed a relatively stable home-life, Cyr bounced around between a number of foster homes. While Wheeler enjoyed an Old Town upbringing where he, “Wandered around like an unleashed dog,” and collected “plenty of scars, but no broken bones,” Cyr suffered a severe beating on the streets of Winnipeg after rebuffing the unwanted advances of a group of men. While Wheeler enjoyed a close relationship with his family, Cyr is still tracking down long lost siblings.
They came from very different places but they’re united by a love of storytelling and each other.
On Sept. 20, the longtime Yellowknifers will take the stage at the Northern Arts and Culture Centre (NACC) for the Ko K’e Spoken Word and Music Festival. Their performance will be moderated by Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams.
Cyr and Wheeler came up with the idea of teaming up for the festival about six months ago, he said.
“I want to hear more of her stories and how she raised me and how I turned out so terribly,” he quipped. “Because I think it’s endlessly interesting to here from someone who has been here for decades about how the town has changed because it’s such a transient town. Most people stay a year, two years, and leave but to plant roots in a place like this difficult, tumultuous and I think it takes a lot of adaptation and skill.”
The pair will recount the fascinating tale of how Cyr extricated herself from the mean streets of Winnipeg to forge an eclectic and successful career in the North.
Her father was a sniper in the Canadian military who was posted to Europe, she said.
“His comrades were happy he was there,” said Cyr. “He would shoot deer for them.”
Despite being a veteran, Cyr’s parents had trouble finding work and accommodations in Winnipeg and, like so many other Indigenous children at the time, she was put into the foster system.
She bounced around from one foster home to the next and was separated from her six siblings. Eventually, she was sent to live on a dairy farm near Teulon, Manitoba.
“It was quite common to put Indigenous kids with dairy farmers,” she said. “Because they were looking for young people to help on the farm.”
All was not well with Cyr as these early traumas were having an effect on her. She wasn’t speaking and her hair was falling out.
“I guess I had PTSD,” she said. “Basically I was a nervous wreck.”
In an attempt at home medicine, her foster mother would chase her down and give her cod liver oil, which she did not enjoy, she said.
“To this day I’ll have nothing to do with it,” said Cyr.
As a young adult she had many adventures in Manitoba but she could not secure steady work or a decent place to live. Then she got a call from her friend in Yellowknife who said she should come up and take a job at the Gold Range Bistro.
“It used to be packed everyday from just about four o’clock in the afternoon until two o’clock in the morning,” she said.
At the bistro, it was, “Hot pants and high heels,” and hard work, she said.
Then in the summer of 1974, Cyr found herself involved in an important historical event.
On a lark she was hired to arrange transport for about 2,000 people who needed to get to Fort Good Hope for the first ever joint Dene-Metis annual general assembly where important land claims were being discussed.
“I recognized that I was watching history,” said Cyr. “And I decided to stick around.”
From there she went on to become a prominent figure in the North. She worked in legal services, served on Yellowknife city council, became an artist and visited many of the communities across the territory.
“I’ve had a really good life,” she said. “I’ve had some tough times but I’ve also had some really incredible work experiences that I have just loved.”
Over the years she has enjoyed some success tracking down her long lost siblings. This summer she went to Nelson House in northern Manitoba where she met her sister Darlene for the very first time.
She also discovered that the small community is overrun with her cousins.
“It was a fair amount to take in,” she said.
Wheeler has enjoyed his own eclectic career. He worked as an actor in Vancouver before coming back to Yellowknife and getting work at the Moose radio station. From there he teamed up with Williams and a number of others to found Cabin Radio.
“Being able to find a niche and being able to create your own economy and create your own business. Yellowknife is incredible for that,” he said. “It’s been a really cool journey.”
The Ko K’e Spoken Word and Music Festival is running through Sept. 21 and will feature a number of performances from a few well-known artists. Cyr, Wheeler and Williams will be joined by writer/performer Cliff Cardinal. The next night’s performance will feature Yellowknife musician Digawolf and Johnny Landry.