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From Ireland to northwest B.C. via London, Alberta, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan

Hazelton’s Bernadette Ferguson reminisces about her long, wonderful life
Bernadette Hayes marries James Ferguson in Edmonton in June, 1961. (Contributed photo)

As a wee lass in southwest rural Ireland, Hazelton’s Bernadette Ferguson (nee Hayes) learned an early lesson in the kindness of people regardless of their background.

“We had one family of Protestants and we were Catholics and we were told in school that Protestants go to hell,” she said. “We couldn’t talk to anybody about it, but I thought to myself, ‘how could they go to hell because they were such great neighbours’.”

“They gave us everything, wood, I remember getting an ice cream pail of homemade butter, and us kids were all over their property, even their house. We had fun and nobody told us to get out, all our neighbours were like that.”

Ireland, particular in rural areas, was very poor in the 1930s and Bernadette’s father worked as a labourer while her mother took care of their small farm — as well as Bernadette and her nine sisters and five brothers — near the County Limerick hub village of Croom.

“We walked to school three miles and three miles home and for our lunch we got one slice of bread with brown sugar,” she recalled. “So, of course we were hungry on the way home, so we just raided the farmer’s garden and we’d just walk along the road chewing on a turnip or chewing on a carrot and then at one place there was beautiful, big yellow apples and this lady chased us with a four-pronged fork.”

She fondly remembers everybody looking out for one another.

“If you were short of milk you’d find it on your doorstep the next day, all of our neighbours were like that,” she said. “We had a wonderful childhood.”

And of course, Bernadette also pitched in.

“We had an uncle two miles away, he was a bachelor, and during the summer I would cross the fields and clean up his house and scrub his clothes on a scrub board,” she said. “At that time people changed their clothes once a week, so he would try to make it easier for me, he would soak his long johns before I got there.”

“I enjoyed it, though, no pay, you didn’t expect pay, he was your uncle.”

When Bernadette was 19, she and her twin sister Theresa went off to London to study nursing. She recalls that too as a wonderful experience.

“We had beautiful bedrooms, cleaned out every week, our laundry done, we even got a little cheque every month,” she said. “That was London for you, a beautiful nurse’s home and just oodles of friends around it.

“While we were in London, too, we got free tickets from the matrons for the biggests theatres there. I only remember one of them, the Royal Albert Hall, and I saw the Russian dancers there and there we were, four little kids and all these other people dressed in fur coats.”

The twins were not above using their identical looks for an occasional prank. Bernadette recalls a time when Theresa had a date with a young man.

“She didn’t feel like going, so I said, ‘can I go?’ and she said, ‘yes’ and he called me Theresa and I didn’t tell him anything,” Bernadette laughed. “Of course, it was just romantic, there was no hanky panky in those days, you didn’t crawl into bed with every guy you met.”

In addition to her training as a nurse, she also learned a lesson in frugality.

“They were kind of stingy because a lot was lost in the war, there were skinny blankets on the beds and we were always told to turn off the lights,” she said. “I still do that.”

Bernadette was in London when the Great Smog happened. In 1952, London was an industrial city of 8.6 million people almost entirely powered by coal. All that pollution, combined with an anticyclone that brought unusually cool and windless conditions choked the city for five days in December 1952 killing an estimated 12,000 people.

Bernadette remembers on the afternoon it happened, the sky just going dark.

She was tasked with nursing some of the sick.

“There were a lot of pulmonary problems and the secretions from your nose were black,” she recalled.

She does not remember being afraid, however.

“No, it wasn’t scary, I was young,” she laughed.

She was also in London when Queen Elizabeth II was coronated. It was very exciting to witness, she said.

When they finished their training, it was back to Croom where they worked for the summer at an orthopedic hospital.

“At that time there were a lot of babies that had polio and a lot of tuberculosis, so that’s where we worked for the summer then we went to Dublin for the midwife’s course,” she said.

“Our farm wasn’t too far, maybe three or four hours on our bicycles, we rode our bicycles, sometimes we put them on the top of the bus,” she said.

Riding a bicycle is something she remained passionate about throughout her life. At 87, she no long rides; she does still drive, however.

After the summer, they were off to Dublin where she took a year of midwifery and a year of tuburculosis studies and was surprised when they were summoned back to London for another brush with royalty.

“There was no graduation ceremony after, you got a letter in the mail, congratulations now you’re an RN,” she said. “When we were in Croom, we got a message to go back to London and that’s when we met Princess Margaret.”

The Queen’s only sibling personally presented Bernadette and Theresa with their final nursing certificates.

While the twins loved London and Dublin and home, they were drawn to Canada, where they had an older sister living in Edmonton. In 1960, they boarded an ocean liner and made the four or five day crossing to Halifax where they hopped on a train Alberta.

She marvelled at the snow and the expanse.

“I liked it, the space,” she said. “Of course, we had no snow in Ireland, just occasionally we might get some, so I thought, ‘where are the sidewalks’.”

She noticed some things about the people, too, such as Canadians getting married very young. In Ireland, later marriages were the norm, but Bernadette found in Canada most of the people her age were already wed.

“It made me feel old,” she said.

It would not be long, though, before she followed suit.

In Edmonton, Bernadette worked at the Edmonton University Hospital and rented a room in a woman’s home nearby. One day, the woman’s son, James Ferguson, came over for a visit and that was that.

“It was love at first sight,” she explained.

They were married in June 1961 and the union would take her from one end of the country to the other. James, a civil engineer, worked on a number of big projects starting with the Brazeau dam near Drayton Valley, Alberta.

They lived in a camp out in the bush 25 kilometres from the town of Drayton Valley, the only access being a gravel road and as a midwife, Bernadette would often accompany expecting moms to the hospital there.

“I had quite a few that barely made it through the door,” she said.

On one occasion, they didn’t make it, and Bernadette had to deliver the baby by the side of the road.

After that, they wound up in Newfoundland where they started their own family.

They were stationed at the tiny outport of St. Albans on the south coast in the Baie d’Espoir, which at the time was only accessible by boat or aircraft.

When Bernadette had to fly out to St. John’s to give birth to their third child Sean, James was left to babysit the first two, Jim and Kathleen.

She was gone six weeks.

“He said, ‘how do you do it?’ and said he would never do it again,” Bernadette chuckled.

After Newfoundland it was back to Drayton Valley and the Brazeau Dam, where the next three kids arrived, first Colleen then Timothy and finally Sheila.

An unabashed advocate of big families, Bernadette doesn’t understand how people can have an only child.

“The best thing you can give them is more siblings,” she asserted.

She brims with pride when she speaks of her children, two nurses, two teachers and two biologists.

The second youngest, Timothy, is a teacher and an artist, which has taken him to a number of places and given Bernadette a opportunity to travel see Moscow, Paris and Martinique, all of which she loved, but then, she always finds the beauty in wherever she is.

After the Brazeau Dam, James went to work on the Mica Dam (135 km north of Revelstoke) for a few years before moving on to the Gardiner Dam in southwest Saskatchewan, which created Lake Diefenbaker.

Bernadette said their Alberta friends couldn’t understand why they would want to move to Saskatchewan, but Bernadette loved it.

“It depends on what you do with it, then they complain ‘oh it’s too cold’ … you can’t be doing that, you have to make the most of it,” she said.

They made the most of it for 25 years until fourth-in-line Colleen’s wedding to Stephen Kern brought them out to northwestern B.C.

Colleen had studied education at the University of Saskatchewan and attended a recruiting session to get some practice doing interviews, she said. When representatives from School District 82, Coast Mountain, offered her a job, she thought, what the heck, and she was off to Terrace for five years before settling in Hazelton.

“British Columbia is beautiful, the scenery everywhere,” Bernadette said.

She and James loved it and when he retired, they bought a place in Hazelton, where she has been ever since, now 25 years. She lost James in 2010.

One of the highlights of her time in the northwest, she said, was when the Olympic Torch came through in 2010 on its way to the opening of the Winter Games that year.

One of the teachers from the high school had been selected to carry the torch and Bernadette went out to the highway to see it go by. She was not expecting him to let her hold it, but he did.

“That was just a thrill,” she said.

At 87 years old, Bernadette has few regrets.

“I’d like to have gone a few more places, maybe, but I feel that I had a wonderful life, not much sickness, and the babies, six in six years and they always had a friend and they always had somebody to fight with,” she concluded.

Portrait of Bernadette Ferguson (then Hayes) circa 1957. Contributed photo
Clipping from the Oct. 26, 1957 edition of The Irish Times picturing Bernadette Ferguson (then Hayes) receiving her nursing certificate from Princess Margaret. (Contributed photo)
Bernadette Ferguson (then Hayes) with her twin sister Theresa in London in the early 1950s. (Contributed photo)

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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