During the forties and fifties, tuberculosis was a deadly killer in the North of Canada Many First Nations people were sent out to the sanatorium to be treated where they would spend years of their lives. Children grew up in these hospitals. Many people died and almost half of Pikangikum perished.
My Uncle Paul did not survive the disease and died at a young age, leaving behind his wife and baby. Sadly, the baby did not live very long afterward either. A few years later, my mother would also contract the disease and spend approximately two years of her life in the Thunder Bay Sanatorium, leaving behind her first baby, my sister.
In order to deal with loss and grief it was quite common at that time amongst the Anishinabe, to “adopt” another child when you lost your own. If your young daughter died, for example, you could adopt another young girl in the community who might remind you of the one that you lost. You would then make arrangements with the family and be able to visit this child regularly and take the child gifts.
This is what my grandmother did when Uncle Paul died. Even though he was a young man, not a child, at the time of his death, she informally adopted another young man who had been Uncle Paul’s friend. His name was Joe Ashen. Joe Ashen then became my mom’s brother.
I knew Joe since childhood. I knew that he was my mom’s adoptive brother, although I never called him Uncle; to me he was “Joe.” Everyone loved Joe because he had such a funny yet whitty personality, his favourite saying being, “If you wanna fight, join the army.”
Joe had an apartment in the Summers Road complex, although he was old enough to live in a senior citizens home. During the last few years of his life he walked with the help of a cane (a stick actually) and was moving slower. His legs bothered him.
Joe usually called me by my sister’s name, just like my mom did, and he called my sister by my name, unless we were seen together then he knew who was who. I would give Joe a ride once in awhile when he needed one. He was educated, probably went to residential school and spoke perfect English. He used to pop into the office where I worked just to see “what’s happening in Canada.”
The last time I saw Joe was during our Norseman Days Festival in 1993, while we waited for the fireworks and we went for a stroll together. I remember laughing because one of his friends passed us and said something to Joe in Ojibway. I could understand enough to know that he said something about me “the white woman.” Guess he was wondering what Joe was doing walking along the street with me. I take after the Irish side of the family.
Joe was someone I always saw on the streets of Red Lake back in the day and even though he’s no longer here, I still can see him in my mind.