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lives lived

Ken Hannah.Courtesy of family

Kenneth Hannah: Electrician. Woodsman. Self-made man. Father. Born May 8, 1936, in Bannockburn, Ont.; died Feb. 28, 2021, in Campbellford, Ont., of cancer; aged 84.

Ken Hannah was not a man given to talking about his past. He was a man who lived very much in the present and chose not to recount the days gone by. So what I give you is my truth – the truth as I interpret it – pieced together through a lifetime of dialogue on the present that was interspersed with snippets of the past. His life was not one of fame or fortune but is the stuff of which Canada is built.

Born in rural Ontario in 1936, the eldest son of four children, in the grip of the Great Depression and on the cusp of war, he knew early on what hardship looked like. He spoke periodically about waking up to an ice-covered wash pan or collecting food rations with his parents during the war years. Overlay a family that was coming apart at a time when marital tension was kept hidden and you have a convergence of circumstances that would cause many people to break.

Ken chose to escape. Leaving school at the too-young age of 15, and leaving home shortly thereafter, he entered a period of life reminiscent of a Jack Kerouac novel – working as a lineman, bellhop, ranch hand, fire tower spotter (which he described as the most boring job on Earth) in Ontario, Alberta and then on to British Columbia, with at least one detour into California – only to find his way to the place that would leave an indelible mark on his soul: the Yukon.

While it was the sense of adventure that first drew him to the Yukon, what kept drawing him back was the sense of reinvention that permeated it. Everyone had a story and a past they could leave behind. In an environment where your colleagues include a German miner who changed his last name to Macdonald because he thought it sounded Canadian, or a grocer who was reputed to have skied out of Czechoslovakia in the days of the Iron Curtain, my father must have felt he fit right in.

He left the Yukon for Ontario in the mid-1960s to marry Lois Foster, who was from the same small Eastern Ontario town. He returned to the Yukon in 1972 with his young family, which by then included two sons. In the Yukon, he became an electrician, a vocation that suited his personality – inventive, methodical and structured with just a hint of danger.

Our family left the Yukon in 1976 for good, moving back to Eastern Ontario so Ken could raise his family closer to home and practise his new trade. But the Yukon never left him – it was the reference point for the rest of his life.

A structured calm defined my father’s demeanour. As a teenager, I helped him often with his trade. Once he gave me some basic wiring to complete on my own. Somewhat anxiously I asked him what would happen if I did this incorrectly. He answered in a matter-of-fact voice, “Nothing – it just won’t work.”

In retirement, Ken built a log cabin in the forest near his home by hand – he felled, debarked and engineered the logs by himself. It was the most fitting edifice to his personality in both the spiritual and actual sense of the word. He was often asked why he undertook such a task in his later years and his answer was always the same: “Just to see if I could do it.”

In 2019, I had an opportunity to return to the Yukon with him – to see it through his eyes and to show his teenage grandson the world that formed him. For that, and for him, I am eternally grateful.

Darren Hannah is Ken’s younger son.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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