Special to the Tribune
Many people remember the late Irene Peters as a founder of the Cariboo Friendship Centre. Others remember her as a tireless community activist who was never intimidated and never hesitated to speak her mind on any issue. She was an inspiration for many women, and she led the way for others to follow in her footsteps.
Irene was born in May, 1930 “under an apple tree” at Soda Creek. She was orphaned at age five. She spent the summer with her grandmother and great-grandmother at Soda Creek but boarded at St. Joseph’s Mission during the school year. In an interview with Sage Birchwater years later, she said she recalled happy days with her grandmother and great-grandmother, picking berries, fishing, playing with friends and visiting relatives. Not so happy was her time at St. Joseph’s. When she completed grade 8, she left the Mission and went to 100 Mile House where she worked for what she called “high class people.” Recalling her days at the Mission, she told Sage “we can’t hold regrets or blame – we have to forgive.”
Irene had issues with alcohol in her early years— she told Sage she was surprised when she was working in 100 Mile House to see people at parties with the same drink in their hands for hours— she wondered why they didn’t just drink it down and have another.
Irene married Sam Peters from Sugar Cane in 1949, when she was 19. Sam was a rancher and worked as a logger. The couple had no children of their own, but they raised six children, Ernie, Terry. Rose, Susan, Shirley and Laurie. They often took in others who needed care.
Fifty years ago, few First Nations people lived in the town of Williams Lake. Many who did were homeless. When those who lived in villages in the area came to town, there were few places for them to rest or even have a meal. It seems hard to believe today, but to put it bluntly, they weren’t welcomed in many restaurants or anywhere else for that matter except the stores where they spent their money. Sam and Irene were among the people who changed that with the establishment of the Cariboo Friendship Centre.
In the early 1960s, Hugh Mahon, who was with the Department of Indian Affairs, came up with the idea of having a place where the out-of-town First Nations people would be welcome when they came to town. Irene and Sam, along with Mahon and Oblate Brother Ed Lynch formed a group and established the Indian Friendship Society — a name later changed to the Cariboo Friendship Society. By the late 1960s they had secured enough funding to rent, with an option to buy, a smallish two bedroom house on Third Avenue.
Irene managed that first Friendship Centre. The operation depended largely on donations, and she had a budget of $50 a month. Daughter Laurie remembers that Irene always had the coffee pot on and was constantly baking and making sandwiches. She provided advice and help to the visitors along with refreshments. The centre soon proved its need and became a popular place. Along with managing the centre, Irene was often asked to serve on the boards of various federal, provincial and local agencies, and she received the 1967 Centennial medal for her work in the community. Whenever she received recognition or a special appointment, she would tell her family “not bad for someone with a Grade 8 education.”
By 1973 the Friendship Society had acquired the former Indian Affairs agent’s home to house the centre. By then, with fundraising, donations and grants, the operation had a budget of $10,000 and more staff. That same year, the government of the day formed the Alcohol and Drug Commission which assumed all responsibility for providing services to deal with those issues. Irene was one of the first members appointed to the commission. That, along with her community work and family, kept her busy, and while she remained on the Friendship Centre board for a time, she was not as active in the operation. Through the Alcohol and Drug Commission she was able to get funding for what became the Centre’s very successful drug and alcohol program. For seven years she was matron at the local police station.
Irene was widowed in 1981, leaving her with the ranch to run. She retired as matron to take on the job of managing the ranch (which included feeding the cows) until Ernie, Terry and Laurie were able to get home to help.
In 1984, Irene met Cyril Makartoff and retired from community activities. The two had a home in Mexico and later in Palm Springs, They also had a motor home and travelled all over Mexico and the U.S. They came back to the Cariboo in the summer months. Laurie’s four children were rodeo competitors and Irene and Cryil followed every stampede to cheer them on, Irene calling encouragement from the grandstands.
Irene spent her last days in the Seniors Village in Williams Lake. She was 86 when she died on December 29, 2016.
Her ashes were buried, along with those of other deceased family members, at the Peters’ homeplace at Sugar Cane, where daughter Laurie Ilnicki now lives.