Two women from the remote Secewepemc community Esket (Alkali Lake) have been recognized for years of nurturing young children in their community.
Edna Johnson and Myrtle Johnson are recipients of the 2021 Child Care Awards of Excellence from the provincial government.
They both live in Esket and work full-time at Cathy’s Daycare.
“They are very resilient and we are very blessed to have them here,” said Karen Litke, coordinator of the daycare. “They are the people who keep things going here for everyone’s children to be here.”
Litke said the awards have been a long-time coming in recognizing the two women for their work.
“It is an honour to receive the award,” said Edna who began working at the daycare 17 years ago. “I love watching children develop. I’m always so excited when they first start walking and talking.”
It was while attending a Headstart conference in 1998 in Vancouver that Edna said her eyes were opened to the needs of First Nations children.
An elder who spoke at the conference said First Nations children need to be taught their traditional language and culture from a young age.
“It really inspired me so I applied for funding and went to school to take early childhood education (ECE) in Williams Lake,” she recalled.
After taking the first two years of school in Williams Lake she applied to the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band, who was offering further education for ECEs through a partnership with the University of Victoria.
Edna “jumped” at the opportunity to train to work with infants, toddlers and children with special needs, and the band supported her, following up by accommodating her with room and board.
She graduated in 2002, and returned to Esket but there were no jobs at the time working early childhood so she applied to Nenqayni Treatment Centre where she worked for a few months as a child and youth worker and with the girls treatment program.
By 2004, there was an opening at the daycare in Esket so she returned to work in the community and has been there ever since.
Soon into the new job, she approached her supervisor Deborah Johnson and asked if they could include prayers and drumming in the Secwepemc language at the daycare’s morning circle, something that has continued.
Originally from Halfway River First Nation in the Fort St. John area, Edna moved to Esket for sobriety in 1984.
Her mom had died in 1981 and her father wanted her to join her sister Sherry who was already living at Esket and going to the day school.
“My alcohol and drug counsellor booked me a one-way ticket to Williams Lake from Halfway,” she recalled.
Soon after arriving she began fostering children — two or three at a time, something she and her husband Ken Johnson have continued doing.
Esk’etemc education director Jenessa Loewen said every time a new child comes to the daycare the parents are always surprised how quickly they adapt to their new home.
“This “home” that Edna has helped to build is where every child in Esk’etemc finds their beginning in their first words, steps, and strength in becoming the next generation,” Loewen said.
Myrtle was born in Williams Lake and raised by her grandparents Henry and Christine Squinahan in one of the meadows near Esket.
She attended St. Joseph’s Mission residential school for one year at the age of five years old in 1959 and 1960 and then returned home to attend day school in her community. She attended Grade 6 and 7 in Williams Lake and then stayed in the dorm to attend high school.
“I stopped speaking my language when I was in school and I noticed other children coming out of residential school had none of their culture either.”
Today she can write and read her Secwepemc language and has enjoyed teaching youth where to gather berries and tea and catch trout.
She spent 10 years doing post-secondary studies to become a certified ECE teacher, achieved a Diploma in Arts, Secwepemc Language/Culture certificate, Educational Assistant Diploma and a Bachelor of Education, taking courses while she continued to work full-time.
She has two children — a daughter in Victoria and a son living at Esket.
Myrtle and her sister, the late Catherine Belleau, started the initial Cathy’s Daycare in the basement of Cathy’s home over 40 years ago, Loewen said.
Today the daycare is housed in a new building which opened in 2019.
“Myrtle’s innovation, passion, and vision for the programming has helped transform the program to its current state,” Loewen said.
Both women said they were surprised to receive the awards, yet honoured to be recognized for their work.
“We just hung on together, supported each other all these years and it paid off,” Edna said.
Myrtle said she couldn’t believe it and asked why she of all people received the award.
“I felt I worked hard, but it was because I just want the best for the children. I want them to grow up to use the gifts they are given.”