Paulette Girou and I reminisce about growing up in Fernie. I last saw her over a decade ago so it was wonderful to run into her at the Heritage Library on the day North by Northwest was broadcasting from there. I recall Paulette and her sisters vividly during the fifties and sixties. We all attended Fernie Central School on Victoria Avenue that housed kindergarten to grade 13. This made for exciting times as students of all ages mingled in the hall accessed from both Victoria and Pellat Avenues. This space was like a grand hall with majestic staircases leading upwards to the second story of the school from both entrances. I can still envision the smooth veined wood of the curved balustrades under my hand as I made my way up those stairs to the classrooms on the second floor. It was in this area that all students gathered each Monday morning to recite the “Our Father” prayer, sing “Oh Canada” and “God Save the Queen.”
Conversation turns to families. Paulette’s grandmother Annie Clara Slade (her brother Arthur Slade has his name on the War Memorial in front of the Court House) came to Canada in 1917 from England as a “paying customer.” This was very important to her as back then many made the ocean trip without doing so. Working as a kindergarten teacher at 18 she was tired “doing for her brothers and working on the family farm.” She met her husband James Rogers in Rainy River, Ontario. James was from Baltimore and originally from England. They married and decided that they would move either to Bellingham, Washington or Fernie. They chose here and James was the one who put electricity in the homes of Coal Creek. Paulette’s French grandparents, Luise Arnoud and Roger Girou, came straight from France. Roger worked in the mines although he didn’t know the language but he hunted, fished, went mushroom picking, made home- made wines, “the land was so rich, there was so much to have” she says, They lived in West Fernie. “My dad, their son went to Catholic school until he quit in grade nine, mom went to public school till grade 12. Mom was Anglican, Dad Catholic, it was a little bit divided, we felt a bit on the outside with the French side of the family but Dad was supportive of us girls going to the Anglican Church.
Dad was a fire boss at Coal Creek. When that mine closed down the miners were told at work but the rest of the people read it on a posted notice on the board. Dad was given a job at Michel but his heart was broken because he knew he had taken someone else’s job because of his seniority,” Paulette says. “As kids we never gave thought to Dad working underground, that he could have died and Dad never spoke about it. Years later he said how much he hated the work, it was wet and cold, it was not nice under there but he had a family to feed so he never complained. He loved being outside saying ‘underground I can’t see past my light, when I’m on the mountain it’s freedom, I can see forever.’
“Mom sewed, we were always well dressed, she also knitted Indian sweaters, gardened and canned. This was part of life, she didn’t work outside the home, church was the spiritual and social outlet for her. She played the organ, sang in the choir, was involved with youth groups. Women work today so they don’t do as much of this kind of volunteering,” Paulette says. Paulette is second of four daughters to Rachel and Roger Girou, Sharon, Linda and Carol are the others. The family purchased land at Tie Lake in 1957 for $300. Paulette recalls how her parents were accused of “climbing the ladder” on purchasing Tie Lake Property, although the Anglican Church was a “slice of society of every class” she says. Her dad passed away in 1989 and mom in 1994. “We were raised in a protective environment but it was a good upbringing, we had the freedom to roam the hills, in school we learned the pecking order, we were involved in badminton and drama. I recall walking from West Fernie to school in the winter and it was so cold we would stop at the post office (now Heritage Library) to put our hands on the radiators to warm them up. Sometimes we froze walking. Today, I feel a good spirit in Fernie, there is an influx of Arts so it’s not just about skiing, it’s diversifying here, when the schools were closing we wondered if it was going to be a dead community. Old Fernie doesn’t seem as supportive, not as involved; I wonder why they don’t attend all that is offered here. I come from the City (Surrey). I look for something to stimulate me and to see different points of view and there is much in Fernie that does that.