Monday, June 24, 2024

Canadian Heroines: Chief Elsie Knott

By Terrie Todd

Born to George and Esther Taylor on September 20, 1922, Elsie Taylor grew up in a family of seven on Mud Lake Reserve northwest of Peterborough, Ontario. She spoke only Ojibway when she began Grade One at the school run by the Department of Indian Affairs. Here, students caught “talking Indian” had their names placed on the chalkboard beside a giant X. Naturally, the situation laid the ground for a deep-seated fear of public speaking.

Elsie completed Grade Eight at age 14. At 15, her parents had arranged for her to marry a man from the reserve, 27-year-old Cecil Knott. “Nobody ever talked to me about a career,” she said. “Women just got married.”

By age 20, Elsie had three children and a husband too ill from TB to work. Welfare provided $15 a month. Desperate and industrious, Elsie did all she could to improve living conditions for her children—including berry-picking, cooking, laundry, sewing, cleaning, selling bait, and driving school bus.

The latter enterprise led to a deep concern for the community at large, particularly for getting kids to school. When women were allowed to become officially involved in band politics following and amendment to the Indian Act in 1951, Elsie ran for chief at age 31. Her landslide win made her the first female Indigenous chief in Canada, leading the way for other First Nations women to become more politically active. First, she’d need to overcome her glossophobia.

Chief Elsie Knott in 1973
Success in that area would come gradually as Elsie served as Chief of the 500 Mississaugas of Mud Lake Indian Band (now known as Curve Lake First Nation), first from 1952 to 1962 and then again from 1970 to 1976. For eight years, she didn’t receive a salary because band funds were so small. Yet during her terms in office, 45 homes were built, roads were upgraded, new wells were dug, a daycare was constructed, and more social services were provided. Elsie and her council revived the powwow by opening it to outsiders and using the profits for Christmas hampers. The little girl who hadn’t been allowed to speak her own language now taught Ojibway classes and translated 14 Christmas carols into Ojibway. She organized Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, baseball teams and more. She brought back traditional drumming and singing.

When five of the students on her reserve wanted to attend high school, Elsie drove them in her Ford. When their numbers grew, she was able to purchase a used hearse. She painted it blue and put benches inside. Eventually, she drove a school bus for 34 years and ended up with two large buses and 130 students. One of those students became Judge Tim Whetung, who publicly thanked her not only for driving him to school but for inspiring many young people to follow their dreams.

A committed believer in Jesus, Elsie’s most treasured work was fundraising for a new church. Elsie died on December 3, 1995, at the age of 73. In 1975, she was named one of 25 outstanding women in Ontario.

Chief Elsie Knott. Source: Wikipedia


100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces, by Merna Forster, Dundurn Press, 2004

The Canadian Encyclopedia

In 1942, telegrams bring life-altering news in a war-hardened world—and the one Maggie receives is no different. But running a restaurant with the help of only pregnant teenagers has made her tough. Exiled by her wealthy parents and working in the restaurant, fanciful Charlotte runs away with romantic notions of a reunion with her baby’s father. When Maggie recruits the help of her old friend, Reuben, they embark on a cross-country search. Maggie stubbornly clings to her independent ways until dealt another devastating loss that forces her to recognize that war heroes can be discovered in unlikely places.

Terrie Todd’s novels are set mostly in Manitoba, Canada where she lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie. They have three adult children and five grandsons. Her next novel, Even If We Cry, releases in November 2024.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting about this woman, and all the others you have highlighted!