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Five Canadians, with more than 500 years of stories

Centenarian Joseph Novak in his room at the Whistle Bend Place Care Facility in Whitehorse, Yukon, on Monday June 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas

The Canadian Press has spent the past month interviewing some of Canada's more than 11,000 centenarians and their families. These are some of their stories.

'THEY HAD TO FLY IN DOCTORS TO NAIROBI'

Bill Hamill has worn many hats in almost 101 years, including air gunner with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, world traveller and dad.

The D-Day veteran said his last great adventure happened when he turned 100 last August. Having worked at CN Rail for "40 years and three months," the company gifted him a trip across Canada.

"To go to Toronto from Vancouver was really exciting," said the father of three.

Though wildfires in B.C.'s interior caused some hiccups, he said the adventure would be hard to top — he's not as excited for his upcoming birthday as he was for his last.

It was his CN job that took him to Africa in the 1980s to work on a rail project in Tanzania. He said he went back a second time even though he caught malaria on his first visit.

"They had to fly in doctors to Nairobi," he said. "I (was) kind of embarrassed ... because by the time I got through to (Kenya), I was pretty well clear."

Hamill was born into a large family in Long Branch, a neighbourhood in Toronto, in 1923. He was the seventh of 10 children, and is the last one living. "Most of them reached 90 and two were close to (that)," he said.

He moved to Gibsons, B.C., to live with his daughter after the deaths of his longtime partner, Thelma Weeks, and Larry, one of his sons, in Ontario.

Hamill said he lives a solitary life, but enjoys the small town where he lives. He tells stories of his life in his apartment, on the bottom floor of a duplex he shares with his daughter.

He said the biggest change in his lifetime is technology. He gestured to his smartphone, sitting on a table among books he said he could no longer read due to his deteriorating eyesight.

But he said his best friend FaceTime calls him every weekend from Toronto to catch up. He said his youngest brother, who died last year, used to do the same.

"There's so many things in technology now," he said. "Most things have changed."

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'IF YOU SEE AN INJUSTICE, DON'T JUST TALK ABOUT IT'

Vi Roden, 101, is getting ready for the next phase of a long, full life.

She's leaving her oceanview condo in West Vancouver, B.C., at the end of the month to move into a retirement home a few blocks away. She's happy to be staying in the neighbourhood.

“Here in West Vancouver you can keep busy all day, every day, if you want,” she said.

She is a firm believer in keeping busy. That includes yoga, a book club and keeping up to date on current affairs. She's also involved in the charitable group 100 Women Who Care.

"I just like to keep active and alert and know what's going on in the world,” said Roden.

Roden, who was born in Vancouver, was the founder of the Act 2 Child and Family Service non-profit that has been helping victims of violence, sexual abuse and trauma since 1980. She has also helped incarcerated women through the Elizabeth Fry Society.

"I have always believed, if you see an injustice, don't just talk about it, act on it, because that's the only way change ever happens,” she said.

The most rewarding moment of her life, she said, was in the 1970s when B.C.'s then-attorney general Garde Gardom launched an investigation into a prison attack on a woman who was held down in a bath of boiling water; Roden said she personally called Gardom to alert him about the case.

Roden, whose husband of 62 years Maurice died in 2015, said it bothered her that she had lost some independence as she aged — "I don't like to be a burden on my friends" — and she worried about falls. But she was constantly finding joy and beauty, whether it came from the smile of a stranger or a flower.

“I just think you have to enjoy each and every day, because you don't know if you're going to have another one."

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'WE WISH THAT MOM WAS UP AND ABOUT'

Margaret Friend has dementia but muscle memory took over as she effortlessly applied her lipstick for a photograph.

Her son, Jim Friend, said the moment was surreal, almost nostalgic.

"I haven't seen lipstick on my mother in a long time," he said. "At 101 years of age — I stood there and watched her apply lipstick to her own lips."

His wife, Sue Friend, chimed in to add that Margaret Friend didn't even need a mirror. "She always took great pride in making sure that her hair was done and she always dressed beautifully when she was going out," she said, adding that her mother-in-law's favourite colour was red.

Margaret Friend now lives in a long-term care home in Hamilton, Ont. Family members visit about twice a week, and she is close to her five grandchildren, said Sue Friend.

Margaret Friend had 13 siblings but has outlived them all. She has also been a widow for more than 40 years. Her husband, Ted, was 68 when he died in 1981. They had three children.

Jim and Sue Friend said Margaret Friend had a Grade 6 education and held several cooking and cleaning jobs. They said she loved to garden and enjoyed hosting and entertaining guests, travelling and singing in the church choir.

She also loved to dance, said Jim Friend. But in April 2022 — the night before her 99th birthday — she fell and broke her hip and now uses a wheelchair.

"We wish that mom was up and about, and dancing the way she loved to," Jim Friend said. She still tries sometimes to dance despite her wheelchair, he said.

Jim Friend credits his mother's long life to "good genes."

"She's still with us and we're very thankful for that," he said.

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'WE NEVER HAVE OUR MOMS LONG ENOUGH'

Ellen Nielsen sits up in her bed singing in the Dania Home, a residential care facility in Burnaby, B.C.

"Qué será, será, whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours to see," the 104-year-old sings with daughter Anne Scott.

The Doris Day classic is Nielsen's favourite song.

Nielsen was diagnosed with dementia at 98, requiring her to move to the care home from her apartment.

Scott said her mother now sometimes has moments of not being able to understand why she is in the facility.

“She thinks she can just get up and go for a walk and then when she realizes that she can't, it's very sad,” said Scott, describing her mother as mostly bedridden.

As a child in Denmark, Nielsen used to put on gymnastics shows with her sister, charging spectators, and Scott attributes her mother's long life to her childhood exercises.

In 1951, Nielsen, husband Erik and their young family moved to Canada. Scott was two at the time.

Scott's fondest childhood memory is coming home from school in Vancouver to a kitchen filled with the smell of her mother's baking.

“Mom was always in the kitchen making something, either bread or cakes or cookies, you know there was always something,” said Scott.

She said her mother, who has been widowed for about 45 years, always attributed her longevity to her stubbornness. To have had so much time with Nielsen was "a reward" said Scott.

“We never have our moms long enough. It doesn't matter how long we have them. It's never long enough,” said Scott.

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'I LIVE WITH HER IN MY HEART EVERY SINGLE DAY'

Joseph Novak grew up in Montreal and enlisted in the military when he was just 20 years old.

He said that this month had brought back "sad memories" — the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Mary. "But life must go on," he said.

Novak, who turns 101 in September, was a lance corporal in the Canadian Army Service Corps and was made a knight of the French Legion of Honour in 2021 — that nation's highest decoration.

For his 100th birthday last year, family, friends and Armed Forces members joined Novak at his care home in Whitehorse for a flag-raising ceremony.

Novak has given back to the Yukon, which he calls "Canada's paradise."

He donated a million dollars to the Yukon Hospital Foundation in 2021 to help purchase a new mammography unit and support mental health.

As the father of two journalists, he also gifted $150,000 to Yukon University to create a bursary for Indigenous students studying communications.

His son, who is also named Joe Novak, lives in Calgary. He said that while his father is best known publicly for his military work, he was also a skilled mason. He said his father worked in construction when he returned from the war but also built a home in Montreal and a cottage in Vermont.

He said his father also worked as a cleaner, bridging into consulting and managing work for cleaning companies. "He and my mom invested very wisely in the stock market," he added.

He said his father always embraced the philosophy that "you treat people the same way you want to be treated."

"My dad decided that they thought this money should go to the hospital (and) back to the community that had been really good to them," he said.

Joseph Novak credits his long and happy life to his wife, who died of cancer in 2019 within three months of their eldest son, Peter, who also lived in Whitehorse.

"She was an exceptional lady," Novak said of his wife. "I live with her in my heart every single day that goes by."

— By Brieanna Charlebois and Nono Shen

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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