by Gerry Bird
I have no memories of my father, as he died in a canoeing accident in 1959 in southern Ontario when I was just three months old. The little I had known about Thomas Elllis Bird (Tommy) was that he met my mother when they were both enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, and they married in England during the war. My mom never talked much about him when I was growing up, perhaps because the memories were too painful, or maybe because she just had her hands full raising seven kids on her own. Mostly from others in the village of Harwood, Ont., where we lived, I learned that my dad was an avid outdoorsman, fisherman and hunter. The notice of his death in the local paper described him as “a well-known wolf hunter” and his obituary noted that he had worked as a miner in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
Years later, my oldest sister would research our family’s genealogy, including that on our dad’s side, and would learn that he had emigrated from Scotland with his family to a small community in northern Saskatchewan in 1927. She and one of my brothers had also visited our paternal grandfather in British Columbia near the end of his life, but apart from the occasional Christmas card or letter, we had very little contact with my father’s family in the years after his death. My mom never remarried and she herself passed away – after a long and otherwise happy life – in 2009, just two weeks shy of her 89th birthday.
Thus far, my life as a parent has been considerably less eventful and my wife, Sandra, and I have raised only two children, Jeremy and Hilary. By a strange twist of fate, both now find themselves living and working in Yellowknife; a place which I had visited briefly in 1996 en route to a canoe trip of my own down the Keele River. Hilary, a reporter for CBC North, moved first, followed by Jeremy, who is the advertising manager of EDGE YK and co-owner of Verge Communications. Sandra and I enjoy keeping in touch with the kids and their partners – both of whom are born and raised in the NWT – via FaceTime and email, and we love following their work online. From our vantage point, they lead richly fulfilling lives and have both grown immensely over their four years in Yellowknife. What more can any parent want for their children?
As it turns out, Bird family history may hold a clue as to why “life in the Knife” seems to have been such a good fit for Jeremy and Hilary. I had learned from my sister that our own father had received no further education after arriving in Canada at the age of 12. After working as a farm labourer, and then riding the rails through the worst of the Great Depression, an old postcard which he had sent to his mother in 1937 talked about his plans to head north and work in Yellowknife. When Sandra and I first visited the kids in YK in the summer of 2010, I stopped by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to see if they might have a record in their archives of my dad – their grandfather – having lived and worked in the NWT. The helpful lady at the counter could find no record of a Thomas, or Tommy Bird, but she was able to show me a collection of photos depicting life at Con Mine between 1938 and 1940, which had been donated by a Jim Bird.
Perusing the photos online, I was struck by one entitled “The Bird at Roost.” It was of a young man – who I guessed to be in his late teens – reclining on a bunk, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine.
Although his hair was a little lighter, he bore a striking resemblance to a photo I’d seen years earlier of my father at a similar age. The description accompanying the collection read: “James M. Bird was born in Scotland in 1920 and immigrated to Saskatchewan with his family in 1927. In October 1937, James Bird moved to Yellowknife to join his father, Robert Bird, who was working as a medical officer at the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Ltd. (Con Mine). James was hired as a general labourer at the mine, but after working in a variety of areas became a qualified miner.” From his family’s background, there could be no doubt that Jim Bird was my father’s younger brother, and although there was no mention of my dad, it became apparent that his father, Robert “Bob” Bird was my grandfather. He had also worked at Con Mine, from 1937 to 1942.
The bird at roost, Jim Bird, the author’s uncle, smokes a cigarette while reading. | NWT Archives/ James Bird fonds/N-1993-029: 001521
Hilary later came across a passage in “A Pictorial History of Con Mine,” published in 2007 by the NWT Mining Heritage Society, which reads: “Con Mine was the location of Yellowknife’s first two hospitals and contributed to the district’s medical needs. During early exploration the only trained medical person was Bob Bird who was the first aid attendant… In 1937, a three-bed “cottage” hospital was built and Dr. Oliver Stanton and his wife Ruth arrived to run it…Ruth Stanton was the nurse and Bob Bird became their assistant. The three of them were the only trained medical people in the area so they were also treating people from the other camps and from Yellowknife.”
While there were no photos of Tommy in the collection, there were several of Jim himself, and a few of my grandfather, Bob Bird, including one with the Stantons and another showing him holding “the first gold brick ever poured in the NWT” in 1938.
Needless to say, I was surprised to learn about this chapter of our family’s history, of which I’d been totally unaware. When we visit the kids in YK now, as we have several times in recent years, it’s with a new sense of connection to the place – of somehow “belonging.” Whether we’re hiking or fishing outside the city, enjoying a beer at the Wildcat Cafe, or taking in the view from Pilot’s Monument, I can’t help but think about my dad experiencing the same simple pleasures in an earlier time.
Sandra and I still lament the fact that Jeremy and Hilary are so far from home, but we are buoyed by their stories of new adventures and of friendships forged in what they now proudly view as their own home. It’s also comforting to know that, by strange coincidence, they’ve chosen to live and work in the same northern frontier town – now a modern city – in which their grandfather, great grandfather, and great uncle pursued their own adventures almost 80 years ago.
Bob Bird, the author’s grandfather, in September 1938 with the first gold brick poured in the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife. | NWT Archives/James Bird fonds/N-1993-029-0026