Ask any longtime Yellowknifer and they’ll tell you — everyone knew Margaret Thrasher.
A fixture downtown in the 1970s and ’80s, Thrasher, an Inuvialuit woman, was monikered the matriarch of the city’s street population. A protector and a proclamator, she was often seen, and heard, “holding court” in front of Franklin Avenue’s post office, her booming voice, and blasting boombox, too hard to ignore.
Sometimes, Thrasher could be seen sitting on a curb, sketching or painting the urban landscape that surrounded her.
But Nina Segalowitz, Thrasher’s daughter, grew up not knowing the woman known to so many in Yellowknife.
Born in Fort Smith in the early ’70s, Segalowitz was taken from Thrasher during the Sixties Scoop — when thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families to be adopted or put in foster homes between the 1950s and 1980s — when she was just a baby. Segalowitz was adopted by a Montreal couple.
Segalowitz grew up knowing she was from Fort Smith. She knew she was “Eskimo”— the term used at the time. But she knew nothing of her biological father, a Dene man from Alberta, or of her mother, Margaret.
“I grew up without knowing who I was,” said Segalowitz in a recent interview with Yellowknifer.
In the late ’90s, a quest to reclaim her culture and identity took Segalowitz back to her birthplace, where she met her biological father, and learned her mother, Thrasher, had died in 1989.
She went back to her life in Quebec, left with only a few material items linking her to her mother.
That changed when a parcel arrived at Segalowitz’s doorstep this week.
Segalowitz waited until Thursday, her birthday, to open it. Inside, a painting of Yellowknife’s Gold Range bar, created by Thrasher herself.
“I’m able to be with my birth mother on my birthday,” said Segalowitz, fighting back tears as she unveiled the painting during a Facebook Live video Thursday.
The painting was sent by Gail Cyr, a well-known Yellowknifer who recently connected with Segalowitz online.
Segalowitz knew the piece was coming, but didn’t know what it looked like, leaving her with a “wonderful surprise” on her birthday.
Cyr, who tuned into the emotional online unveiling, was gifted the painting by late Northern News Services founder Jack “Sig” Sigvaldason on her 60th birthday.
Cyr, herself “finally” reconnecting with some of her foster brother and sisters, told Yellowknifer she knows the value of holding on to the little things.
“Having something of them in your possession is important,” said Cyr. “So I got in contact with (Segalowitz) and told her I’d like to send it to her,” she added.
For Segalowitz, who knew little about her mother’s art, the painting means the world.
“When I see paintings or drawings that my mother did, it just brings me closer,” said Segalowitz.
Raised by two university professors in Montreal, Segalowitz grew up in an “enriched” environment with “a lot of material things.” She went to private school, travelled around the world with her parents and began cello lessons at the age of three.
“I played in an orchestra. I had loved music for a long time. But it didn’t feel like it came from where I came from.”
When Segalowitz heard Inuit throat singing and Dene hand drumming as a teen, it felt like home.
At 18, after stepping into Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre, she became a “sponge” to the culture she had lost. Segalowitz began searching for ways to make herself “feel more Inuit … more native.”
“It started from the outside, from beadwork to braiding my hair. But then it became an internal thing where it felt like I had to have connections with drumming and singing,” said Segalowitz.
Segalowitz began throat singing while at university. Twenty five years later, she’s still performing, often bringing her own daughters along with her. It’s part of keeping a vow to her three children, that she wouldn’t let them live with the “same trauma of being separated and of not knowing who they are.”
Performing also brings her closer to Thrasher.
“Music for me has been a way to really piece together an identity that was stolen from me when I was taken from my mother.”
Gold Range Tavern tales
In 1999, Segalowitz took a bus from Montreal to Yellowknife. During the trip, she took a seat at the Gold Range bar.
“Someone said, ‘that’s where your mother used to sit,’” recalled Segalowitz.
She spoke with residents, many of whom were amazed at how much she looked like her mother, and heard stories about Thrasher breaking up bar fights and protecting women on the street. Listening to the stories, Segalowitz thought “that’s how I am.”
Segalowitz, who grew up knowing nothing about her mother’s penchant for protecting people, has worked as a social worker for decades.
Her first job was a front-line worker at a women’s shelter.
“I’m very protective of my family and my friends and I’ve always played a role of standing up to the bully,” said Segalowitz. “It’s very strange to hear you’re just like somebody you’ve never met and have been searching for all your life.”
Segalowitz said Cyr, who has been “supportive” in helping her learn more about her mother and family in the North, sent her the painting even though they’d never met in person.
“That just moves me to tears.”
‘Singing, painting, holding court’
Cyr smiles when she recalls the many stories and memories of Margaret Thrasher.
In the late 1980s, Thrasher ran for mayor of Yellowknife, handing out posters and pins to supporters on the street.
She nearly won.
When Cyr was acting mayor in the ’80s, Thrasher was recruited to lead a crew of street cleaners in on city streets. Just two days later, Cyr received a phone call.
“‘What’s wrong with the streets?’” Cyr remembers the caller asking. “I go ‘what do you mean?,’ fearing the worst.
“‘They’re so clean,’” the caller replied.
“She was such a fixture on the streets. Singing, painting, doing this and that — holding court,” said Cyr.
As for Segalowitz’s newly-acquired Thrasher-original, she has a special place picked out for the painting right next to her medicine bundle and eagle feathers.
She hopes to pass it on to her children.
“I’ll make sure my girls know who it comes from.”