Life-member of the Ladysmith & District Historical Society (LDHS), Isabelle Ouelette worked tirelessly to capture the stories that brought history to life. If Isabelle didn’t know it, it likely was not worth knowing.
Ed Nicholson, another champion of history, spent many hours in the Archives, researching projects with Isabelle.
Here are some of his memories:
If you have visited the Ladysmith Historical Society Archives (under Tim Horton’s) at any point in the past twenty years, you have probably met Isabelle Ouelette. That is because if the Archives were open, Isabelle was usually there, and once you met her, you are unlikely to forget the experience.
I first met Isabelle in the summer of 2009. My wife and I had retired from our ten years in China and decided to return to the town where my family had first settled in 1899. I had spent part of my childhood in Ladysmith and still had relatives here, so we bought a house in Sunny Saltair and set about getting reacquainted. I had always loved history and was anxious to explore my family roots, so joining the LDHS was a logical beginning. My first cousin, Ruth Weeks, was already a member, so she took me down to the Archives to meet Isabelle.
Isabelle and Ruth were old friends, and at first, Isabelle seemed quite pleased to meet another Nicholson — especially as my aunt Myrtle had been her favourite teacher in Grade 5. In fact, whenever Isabelle introduced me to long-term residents she would say, “This is Ed, one of our new volunteers. He’s Miss Nicholson’s nephew!”
At first, I was a little intimidated by Isabelle. Show up for your volunteer shift at 9:10 in the morning, and you would be greeted by “What took you so long?” or, if she was in a better mood, “Well, look what the cat dragged in!”
But once I got to know her, I discovered that was how she greeted most of the people she regarded as friends, and she had a lot of those! In fact, as long as you were there to volunteer or ask questions, you were most welcome at the Archives.
Isabelle not only knew a lot of people, she knew a lot about the town. She wasn’t one to flaunt her knowledge, but if you asked her a question about Ladysmith, she usually had an answer. And if she didn’t, she would pick up the telephone and call the person who did! I think her many years of working in the town as a telephone operator had given her a basic understanding of how the town was “networked.”
If, for example, you needed to know something about events happening in town, she would pick up the phone and call “Ann at the Rec Centre” or “Barb at the LRCA” or “Nita at Grant’s.” As a very last resort, she might say, “Well, you could always ask Rob Johnson. He always knows something, even if sometimes he gets it wrong!”
Isabelle also possessed an insatiable curiosity. The desire to find out something about the town’s history and then to make certain others learned about it as well resulted in her taking a leadership role in getting this knowledge into print. Isabelle was the major force behind the effort to produce two cookbooks containing family history, photos and the favourite recipes of more than 160 of the families that have contributed to our town’s success. She called, coerced and eventually collected the raw material for the two cookbooks and then convinced other society volunteers to help the families with the editing and assembly of their contributions. Although she was pleased to succeed in getting the two volumes published, I think she was even more pleased with the fact that nearly all of the stories were written or at least narrated by the family members themselves.
Isabelle also had a personal connection and deep respect with both the Métis culture and First Nations traditions. I met with Isabelle and many elders from the Stz’uminus people on a number of occasions while learning about their history. From Isabelle, I learned the importance of the choice of food offered in meals and meetings, as well as the role of simple gifts, like tobacco, to show my respect to honoured guests. Isabelle was deeply concerned about the survival of Stz’uminus history and the importance of helping our neighbours to tell their own stories.
Isabelle loved her TV shows, but she was also well-read. She didn’t consider herself a writer, but in publishing the story of the Gap, she made sure that the full story was told. I could never get her to write down her own stories despite her phenomenal memory, and it was like pulling teeth to get her to talk into a video camera, but I will never forget the summer afternoon when I talked her into taking me on a tour of the town. I would drive for a block and then pull over to the curb so I could write down the oral history pouring out of her memory banks. How I wish now I could have talked her into a second trip down First Avenue, with Marina Sacht recording it all from the back seat!
Isabelle, to use her way of saying it, was never one to “blow her own horn.” She also never “suffered fools gladly,” “had time for uppity people” or those who “never knew when to stop yappin’.” You were also not in her good books if you “screwed up,” “slacked off” or were someone who “was all talk and no action.”
I am sure that many of her own family could tell us about the inherent danger in “crossing swords with Grandma.” But I am equally certain that they had little difficulty seeing the warm and loving person just beneath the gruff exterior. The Isabelle I came to know had a huge heart and a wicked sense of humour, expressed with a raucous laugh and smile that could light up the darkest room. Isabelle could be cranky and stubborn, but put her in front of a group of primary students visiting the Archives with their teacher and she would melt before your eyes.
You know, I can imagine Isabelle reading this and telling me, “That’s a load of BS!” But I will use her own words to prove her wrong. Here is what she wrote in the preface to Cooking Up History Volume 2 in 2010: “At one time I could walk down First Avenue and recognize nearly everyone I met. Today, there are many new faces, and I do not always recognize the children and the grandchildren of my fellow residents, let alone the new arrivals. I have lived in Ladysmith for over seventy years, but despite the rapid growth in recent years, it has managed to retain many of the best qualities of small-town
Isabelle loved her hometown — and Ladysmith loved her back.
— Ed Nicholson