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in memoriam

Marguerite Wabano in her apartment in Moosonee, Ontario.Paul Lantz/The Globe and Mail

When people would ask Marguerite Wabano for the secret of her longevity, the oldest survivor of Canada's residential school system would tell them it was forgiveness.

Known as Gookum, Cree for grandmother, she was a pillar of her community, mentoring young people and doting on her scores of grandchildren, great– and great-great-grandchildren. Ms. Wabano died Friday in Moosonee, Ont., at the age of 111.

"She lived a long life to be a mother to all, to show her love to people," her daughter, Madeline Blundon, told The Globe and Mail. "She was a granny to everyone. God put her on Earth for a long life so she could support young people, encourage them to lead a good life."

Born Marguerite Kioke on Jan. 28, 1904, along the Ekwan River in the boreal forest of Northern Ontario, she was one of six children. At age seven, she went to St. Anne's, a Catholic residential school in Fort Albany. She spent two years at the school. After that, her family moved farther into the wilderness, determined to keep their children from having to return to St. Anne's by staying beyond the reach of the authorities.

Ms. Wabano did not often discuss her time at the school, Ms. Blundon said.

"She didn't talk about it very much. She missed her parents [and] living in the bush. She used to go hunting and fishing," she said.

In a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013, Ms. Wabano recounted a story about three boys who ran away from the school and were never found.

"Yes they did run away for good. And they went missing for good. Yes and they didn't talk to anybody though they saw them," Ms. Wabano was quoted as saying in Survivors Speak, a commission report.

She married Raphael Wabano, with whom she had seven children. The couple moved off the Attawapiskat reserve to Moosonee, where Ms. Wabano worked as a cleaner at the Catholic parish and a hotel.

In 2008, Ms. Wabano was among a group of survivors to watch then prime minister Stephen Harper deliver the government's apology for the residential school system from the floor of the House of Commons.

Sandra Linklater, Ms. Wabano's granddaughter, remembered her grandmother as "stoic and calm" that day. "She took everything in stride," she said. "She was just standing very strong, just looking very focused."

The protocol called for Ms. Wabano to enter the Commons with Mr. Harper. As the Prime Minister stood by the door, ready to help the centenarian to her seat, Ms. Wabano strode past him, able to walk into the chamber under her own steam.

"She just walked right by him – 'I can do this on my own, no problem,' " Ms. Linklater said, laughing.

Ms. Wabano was known for her sense of humour and fondness for storytelling and enjoyed socializing over tea in her apartment. A profile last year in Wawatay News, a First Nations newspaper, said 200 well-wishers turned out for her 110th birthday party.

"She liked people, she didn't want to be alone," Ms. Blundon said. "She was really loving, kind. She made everyone laugh."

In a statement, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler described Ms. Wabano as an "inspirational woman and respected leader."

"Marguerite attributed her extraordinarily long life to her ability to forgive, and her wisdom and compassion is an inspiration for us all," he said. "She survived one of the worst chapters of Canadian history and we hope that she lived to see the dawn of a new era in respectful relations between First Nations and the Government of Canada."

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