She told me this story a few times, and in a few different ways; She shared it as part of her 2014 University of Alberta Convocation Address where you can still find it in print and as a video (go to June 11, 2014 and fast forward to about the 32 minute mark). She did a much better job telling it, but I will do my best to honour her story as I share it today.
Elsie was a beautiful and inspiring Elder who has accomplished so much in her long life. She has explained to me many times that those many accomplishments are all grounded in a simple lesson she learned as a child – the importance of always being kind.
The lesson came to her in 1925 when she was 7 years old in Fort Fitzgerald. Her mother had been ill for almost a year and her father was away cooking on the steamboats. Elsie was the oldest child at home, and her bed-ridden mother needed to teach her daughter to look after the family. In that year Elsie learned how to bead and sew, how to make bannock and stew, how to look after her younger siblings. In the fall, Elsie turned 8 and her older brothers returned home from the boats and decided they needed to take their mother to Edmonton for medical treatment, sadly this would be the last time Elsie saw her mother.
Elsie explained that everything was fine until Christmas, when it seemed Santa Claus had forgotten the family. When Syd Porter checked in, he discovered a crying 8-year-old girl trying to do her best for her family.
Syd was a solitary man who lived in a little cabin in Fort Fitz. A WWI volunteer, he had seen unimaginable scenes, though he never talked about his past to those in town. Instead he did what he could to be kind and help those in need.
After Elsie told Syd that Santa had forgotten her and her family. Syd left, returning a couple hours later with a gunnysack full of gifts. He explained to the young girl that Santa had not forgotten the family, but had simply misplaced the gifts.
Elsie explains: “You see, kindness is enduring. Kindness makes everyone feel good. The person who gives kindness feels just as good as the person receiving kindness. When we witness kindness it makes us feel good. We were not the only children that Syd Porter cared for. Syd’s old gunnysack full of gifts was repeated countless times. Whenever the need arose he was there. He did not wait to hear about it, he actively sought out opportunities to help.”
These last few months I come back to this story often. I now know how Elsie felt as a child. Doing all she could to care for her family, but barely being able to care for herself. As I’ve sat searching for answers after May 3, it is the kindness of our community that has helped me through the more difficult times - 88,000 Syd Porters actively searching for opportunities to help and 88,000 Elsie Yaniks overwhelmed by individual acts of kindess.
So now, as days stretch to months, and our community’s patience and understanding are pushed to new limits, please remember Elsie’s lesson and be kind, our community needs it.