Meet Sarah Harper, very likely the oldest person in Manitoba

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OXFORD HOUSE — Henry Ford’s Model Ts weren’t yet rolling off the assembly line and the Wright brothers' first powered flight was still news when the woman believed to be Manitoba’s oldest living person drew her first breath.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/08/2017 (1818 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OXFORD HOUSE — Henry Ford’s Model Ts weren’t yet rolling off the assembly line and the Wright brothers’ first powered flight was still news when the woman believed to be Manitoba’s oldest living person drew her first breath.

Sarah Harper was born Aug. 24, 1906, in the vast expanse of bush that would later become northern Manitoba.

That would make Harper the third-oldest known person in Canada today. She is the oldest Indigenous person in Manitoba, and probably the oldest person in the province.

She’s lived her long life on Bunibonibee Cree Nation, where the remote community of Oxford House celebrated Thursday with a gigantic birthday bash.

As part of the festivities, Bunibonibee also played host a number of dignitaries, including Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, who is also from Bunibonibee and has known Harper all her life.

As local band Raven Hawk tuned up for a medley of country-and-western songs, Harper spoke about her life — and how it feels to be 111 years old.

“I’m very happy I’m still with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Harper said through her granddaughter Rose Knott. The elder speaks Cree and her granddaughter translated her words.

“I’m very happy to still be here and I’m glad they are here to celebrate my birthday.”

More than 200 people filled the community’s school gymnasium, taking photos with Harper, who posed next to a gigantic sheet cake adorned with her portrait.

Harper’s life has been celebrated before; the last birthday party, two years ago, had Harper on a flight to greet well-wishers in Winnipeg. Dignitaries attended the event at the Perimeter Aviation terminal where one United Church minister quipped with affection Harper “is so old, she’s related to almost everybody.”

Then as now, Harper described her early life with her parents on the land before going to school as never living in one place. “We always moved around and nothing happened to us.”

To the inevitable question, what is the secret to a long life? Harper related a story of when she was a little girl and approached an old woman who was blind and couldn’t walk.

It was a defining moment, she said.

DOUG THOMAS PHOTO
Sarah Harper is centre stage at her 111th birthday party celebrated Thursday at Bunibonibee Cree Nation.

“She said, to get her some water,” Harper recalled.

Harper dutifully went off and got the pail of water, returning it to the elder.

“That old lady said, ‘You’ll live a long life and you’ll see your old age.’ That’s what I’m seeing right now.”

Harper is hard of hearing and can’t see as well as she used to, said her granddaughter, Rose. Harper uses a wheelchair but she pushes herself around in at the local nursing home where she lives.

“She brought me up, since I was about five,” said Rose, pausing as her grandmother spoke.

“The other thing she’s saying is the secret to a long life,” said Rose, pausing to listen: “She says to be happy and keep a smile on your face.”

Dozens flew to the community, 575 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to pay their respects.

“The commemorative birthday of an elder is a very special event,” said North Wilson.

“In reflecting on the history of our communities, our treaty regions and on the history of Manitoba, Canada and the world, it is amazing what Sarah has lived through. At the time of her birth, Manitoba was the ‘postage-stamp province’ and the great majority of what is now northern Manitoba was part of the Northwest Territories. This means our treaties predate the province as we know it today,” she said, adding elders such as Harper embody the resilience and strength of northern Indigenous people.

Bunibonibee Chief Timothy Muskego described Harper as a “pillar of support, especially for the community’s children and youth.”

Officially, Canada’s oldest living person is Ellen (Dolly) Gibbs, born April 26,1905, in Winnipeg, She celebrated her 112th birthday this spring with family in North Bay, Ont., according to reports from the Gerontology Research Group which validated Gibbs as Canada’s oldest living person, and the 42nd oldest in the world.

Harper is listed as the third oldest person in Canada in Wikipedia’s list of Canadian supercentenarians. The second oldest is also a woman, Henrietta Irwin of Ontario, who turned 111 in May.

Harper’s story is featured in a unique book of pencil drawings and life histories, Portraits of the North, which was published in June.

A labour of love, author Gerald Kuehl spent more than 20 years gaining the trust of his subjects in one Indigenous community after another. The life stories in Portraits of the North are described as “last generation of people born on the land.”

“My meeting with Sarah Harper was in 2003,” Kuehl said Wednesday by email. “I remember what stood out was the quiet elegance of this woman with the dark intelligent eyes. She has much wisdom from now over 110 years of experience and reflection.

“She was raised in the traditional lifestyle of her people and did not attend residential school. She lived through very tough times with her people, a period when, as she said, ‘It was always difficult getting enough to eat.'”

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

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