Margaret Fenton / Olemaun Pokiak left us in her sleep on 21 April 2021. She was best known internationally as the indomitable subject of four award-winning children’s books about her time at residential school in the 1940s, and locally she was famous for her beadwork, embroidery, bannock, and wonderful conversation every Saturday at the Farmers’ Market.
Margaret-Olemaun was born on Baillie Island in the Arctic Ocean on 7 June 1936, en route with her nomadic family to their winter hunting grounds on Banks Island. Her birth was not recorded until much later, which led to an incorrect date being registered. Because of this Margaret-Olemaun enjoyed birthdays on the 7th and 11th of June.
Being Inuvialuk, her young childhood was filled with hunting trips by dogsled, and dangerous treks across the Arctic Ocean for supplies in a schooner known as the North Star. At the age of eight, she travelled to Aklavik, a fur trading settlement founded by her great-grandfather, to attend the Catholic residential school there. Unlike most children, she begged to go to the residential school, despite the horrific reputation of such institutions. There was nothing she wanted more than to learn how to read. 65 years later, she would go on to be one of the first residential school survivors to speak publicly about an experience at such an institution, opening the door for many after her to share their stories. Her last trip to the Arctic was made in 2019 with her grandson Waylon.
In her early twenties, while working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Tuktoyaktuk, she met her husband-to-be, Lyle, while he was working on the DEW Line. Because he could not have horses so far north, Margaret-Olemaun followed him south to Fort St John, BC. Having never seen a horse growing up, and only having seen exactly one cow, Margaret-Olemaun fit right into the Peace region, becoming a cowgirl.
Together, she and Lyle raised many children, to include Doug, Lyle Jr., Margaret Jr., Garth, Shawn, Pine, and Jane. Raising a houseful of children and holding down the homestead she and Lyle owned just outside of Hudson’s Hope, filled Margaret’s heart, though she still dreamed of seeing the world beyond the Peace she read so much about in books. Her husband Lyle often reassured her that in her later years she would travel and have many adventures. Little did she know, his prophecy would prove true.
When Margaret first told the story of how she became her own hero at residential school, she could not have fathomed that conversation would lead to four award winning and bestselling books, Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home, When I Was Eight, and Not My Girl (three of which were translated into French and Korean), a touring musical production, and music video, numerous awards to include two shortlists for the BC Book Prize, and as Lyle had promised, she toured Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast, as well as to Seattle, Anchorage, and Havana, giving more than 100 readings a year up until 2020. When students learn about residential school in their classrooms (from kindergarten to university), it is most likely through Margaret-Olemaun’s stories of resiliency and agency.
Her traditional name Olemaun means the stone that sharpens an ulu knife, and though she would not reclaim this name until her last decade, she always embodied the spirit of determination and the ability to let nothing wear her down or break her.
Margaret-Olemaun’s life was characterized by its unpredictability, whether it was becoming a cowboy’s wife, or shocking even those who knew her well with a very unexpected joke, becoming famous, staying up into the wee hours to watch a Canucks game, or getting a tattoo at the young age of 81 (after which she finally felt confident enough to get her ears pierced). She also proved herself once again as an outstanding creative when a doll she handcrafted was purchased for exhibit by the Indigenous Art Museum in Gatineau in 2020. The one consistent thing in her life was how deeply she loved her family. Her children (mentioned above) and their spouses, to include Gerry, Christine, Janet, Colleen, Eldon, and Christy, fifteen plus grandchildren, to include Madison, Tyrell, Brook, Karsyn, Brody, Emma, Waylon, Diamond, Lincoln, April, Dominick, Henry, Simon, Jenny, and Matt, and their spouses, and her great-grand child, Briar Rose, in addition to her Pokiak family, were her whole world. Margaret-Olemaun valued family above all else. She had a very large family that did not fit any tight definitions, and for that reason we have been unable to name everyone who was lovingly a part of her family, though so many more than those who appear here held a significant part of her heart. We honour all of you and apologize to those unnamed.
She has been greeted on the other side by her father Bertram and mother Lena, her sisters Rosie, Mabel, Violet, Annie, Bessie, and Elizabeth, and brother Boogie, and most dear to her, her husband Lyle, along with many other loved ones and friends she truly missed and talked about often.
All arrangements are being handled by Hamre’s Funeral Chapel. She will be laid to rest in Fairview, with her eternal love Lyle Fenton, in June.
In lieu of flowers, please support your local Farmer's Market.