A Labrador Metis woman remembers

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Today Josephine Mildred Curl Penny is a retired successful entrepreneur with a large, loving family, living in Dunnville, Ont. But, the picture wasn’t always so rosy.

 

Burton K. Janes

Josie, as she is known, was born in Roaches Brook, Labrador, to Metis parents, in 1943. She grew up in the Big Land during the 1940s and 1950s. Not unlike many other Metis, she and her family lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving inside to the primitive settlement of Roaches Brook each fall to hunt and trap, and outside to Spotted Island in the spring to harvest the rich fishing grounds.

The first volume of her autobiography, "So Few on Earth," was published in 2010.

"Through my memories," she says. "I can share the life experiences of a people."

She wrote with a threefold purpose in mind. First, her book is intended to inform her children, who were raised in Labrador, about their roots.

Second, she wants to enlighten her grandchildren, who were born and raised in Ontario, teaching them to "gain insight into the unique and authentic lifestyles of their Labrador ancestors."

Third, she seeks to "give voice to the struggles of the people who lived in this harsh land, a people whose daily lives were often heroic, a people whose roots reach into the prehistory of this continent, long before European contact."

She succeeds on all three counts. Hers has been a life of struggle, especially in the early years. To her credit, she writes with astonishing candor and transparency.

She was sent away to hospital at four years of age and to boarding school when she was seven. She was forced out to work at 11. Not surprisingly, she lost the family bond so important to a child.

During the years she spent at Lockwood School, in Cartwright, she suffered atrocious punishments, merciless teasing, and the humiliation of two rapes. The depersonalization and constant punishment eventually took their toll, and her once free-spirited nature was broken. Reading became her one escape.

"My experiences at Lockwood," she recalls. "Transformed me from a happy, carefree child into a rebellious, angry girl."

The first stage of the painful process was when she was separated from her sister.

"I vividly remember being terrified, lonely, and lost," Josie says. "I was frantic for my family already and wanted to go home."

Meanwhile, there were special times at Lockwood to be cherished ... Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter.

Through everything she experienced, she simply learned to cope.

"I was just trying to make it through every day," is how she phrases it today.

In the final chapter, "Leaving Childhood Behind," she is 17, "a grown woman," she says, "and old enough to make my own decisions." She is on the SS Kyle with her boyfriend, en route to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, indeed, Josie adds, "on my way to a whole new life."

The second volume of her autobiography, "On the Goose," was published earlier this year.

The first thing she has to do is to come to terms with her feelings of helplessness and isolation. She and her husband have four children. Josie tries to overcome many obstacles, at which time she begins to understand why she is unable to feel or express love.

Hers is a dramatic personal story that, in the end, affirms life. She exhibits amazing resilience. Her account is inspiring in its focus on the power of love and hard work that helped her to triumph over adversity.

While attending writing courses at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., she was encouraged to seek out a publisher for her memoir. Pushing ahead with the idea, she enrolled in computer courses, participated in writing seminars and earned a certificate from Connecticut’s Long Ridge Writers Group, which teaches aspiring authors how to find their own writing niche.

Her first teacher at McMaster told his students two things in their first class: "Write what you know" and "Let the chips fall." Josie needed no further encouragement to commit her memories to paper.

"This book," she exclaims, "has been an experience I’ll never forget! It has," she adds, "enlightened my life beyond all understanding."

We, her readers, are in Josie Penny’s debt for writing such a searingly honest memoir of a Labrador Metis woman.

Both "So Few on Earth" and "On the Goose" are published by Dundurn Press of Toronto.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

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