Sarah Simon: ‘An Intense Kindness of Heart’

When 100-year-old Gwich’in Elder Sarah Simon died on November 2, 2001, praise for a life well-lived came pouring in. People talked of her many awards, her work as a midwife and her love of the Gwich’in language and culture. Yet what summed up her life best had been said more than 50 years earlier. Margery Hinds wrote in 1958, that Sarah “has such intense kindness of heart that she wants to help everyone.”

Born on the land near Fort McPherson on May 1st, 1901, Sarah was raised by her paternal grandmother, Catherine Stewart. Instead of attending residential school, Sarah stayed home to care for her blind grandmother and learned to read and write from the missionary in Fort McPherson. When she turned 19, Sarah’s father arranged for her marriage to James Simon, a hunter and trapper from the Yukon.

During the late 1920s, Sarah and James spent two years living in Old Crow, Yukon.  After this, following the advice of the Anglican Archdeacon, they moved to Hay River, where James took bible training courses while Sarah studied music and learned to play the organ.

James and Sarah’s return to the Mackenzie Delta coincided with the deadly 1928 influenza epidemic. Their strength of faith and Sarah’s skill and dedication to caring for the sick during that epidemic was to set the stage for the remainder of their lives. The couple cared for the spiritual and secular needs of family, friends, neighbours and complete strangers. No one in need was ever turned away from their home.

Sarah’s midwifery expertise also took on legendary proportions. She helped deliver 86 babies, often under challenging circumstances in remote camps. She was also frequently called upon as an interpreter and helped to teach and promote the Gwich’in language throughout the Mackenzie Delta region.

She was awarded a Commissioner’s Award, a member of the Independent Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and a member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Anglican Church.

In a ceremony on October 18, 1991, Canada’s Governor General, the Right Honourable Ramon John Hnatyshyn, made Sarah Simon a Member of the Order of Canada. In his words, she was “a pillar of her church and community of Fort McPherson … has spent a lifetime preserving and promoting the culture of the Loucheux [Gwich’in] people … is a skilful linguist whose dedicated work as a translator and interpreter ensured that her people’s needs were met and understood by the many officials who visited the northern communities over the years.”