My mom, Phyllis, was born in Big Trout Lake in northern Ontario, and grew up living with her parents, extended family and community. She came from a long line of chiefs, hunters and spiritual leaders. She went onto reflect this ancestry in every aspect of her life as a wife, mother, and community citizen.
At the age of seven, my mom was sent to residential school. Throughout the eight years attending the schools, mom longed for her life back in the north, but knew that it would impossible to go back. Life in her community had changed, as she had, after being away for so many years.
Following residential school, mom was fortunate to live with a loving family in Sioux Ste. Marie with a surrogate mother who protected her fiercely. She then took practical nurse training in Sudbury until she moved to Winnipeg in the early 1950s.
It was in Winnipeg that she met her husband, my dad, Joseph Keeper, from Norway House Cree Nation. They were married in 1959. Caring for her family was mom’s priority over the next decade, though her life changed as she became involved in community and social development work.
Mom was also a dedicated Anglican and her values, beliefs and love for people were rooted in her Christian faith. She devoted her life and energies to the care of her family and many others who needed love and attention. She always believed in the basic goodness of all people and this became one of the guiding principles of her life.
Mom went on to become a hospital chaplain, and later an Anglican priest. She was involved in the development of St. Helen’s Church in Winnipeg’s North End, where she worked until her retirement in the mid 1990’s. True to her lifelong commitment to community, in her later years she became involved in the development of Agape Table, Winnipeg Harvest, and the “Sisters in Spirit” walk. For 10 years, she and her elder sisters made bannock to feed the gathering at the Forks after this event.
Mom also volunteered with the Sharing Circle and the St. Matthew’s Sewing Circle, an activity very close to her heart. The sewing circle was a weekly opportunity to visit, share food, work and enjoy. Throughout her life, the primary recipients of her loving care were her family, particularly her children and grandchildren, and her loving husband of fifty-five years. My mom’s life can best be described by 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Mom will always be treasured by our family and community.
Joy Keeper is the younger of Phyllis and Joe Keeper’s two daughters. She works with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.