“You got guts, Vicki, I like your spirit. Keep it up!” Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry
“You got spunk... I hate spunk!” Lou Grant to Mary Richards, the Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Clan Stewart motto is ‘Courage grows strong at a wound’.
Victoria Stewart’s passion for Canadian history and heritage made newspaper headlines constantly throughout her life. One such cause became front page news in the Kingston Whig Standard and ran ‘above the fold’ for three consecutive days back in September, 2009, remember?
Stewart, a native Quebecer and founder of the Wolfe Island Historical Society got into political hot water on the 250th anniversary of the death of British General James Wolfe on his namesake island. A special day was planned involving a marching band to help celebrate the event.
Unfortunately, a terrible misunderstanding developed. Stewart’s words read thus over a radio newscast: “Quebec separatists are planning to read the FLQ’s 1970 manifesto from the Plains of Abraham on Sunday. Would you help stir Canadians to come to our event on the island to show the separatists that we’re not afraid to celebrate our own English heritage?”
As a result, the event, a simple unveiling of a plaque commemorating James Wolfe ‘the man’ was seen as James Wolfe ‘the conqueror’ and so, municipal politics intervened and the event was prohibited to take place on municipal property and was ‘postponed’. The result? A controversial debate exploded immediately in the media that went nationwide, including the airwaves of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Suddenly, everyone in Canada knew where Wolfe Island was.
That very afternoon with her sleeves rolled to her elbows, the feisty redhead worked away her broken heart in her immense flower gardens at her home on tranquil Button Bay, Wolfe Island. “I just wanted Canadians not to be frightened,” she said, calmly. Love her or love her not, you sparred with Victoria Stewart at your own peril. ‘Virescit vulnere virtus’!
On March 5, 2012, naturalist, activist and proud Canadian keeper of things historical, Victoria May Stewart, 64, lost the fight of her life succumbing to lung cancer that had been diagnosed in late January. The third eldest daughter of tobacco tycoon and Montreal philanthropist the late David Macdonald Stewart and his wife Rita McMenemy, Vicki, as she came to be known, followed her father’s passion for Canadian heritage as a child. Born and raised in Pointe Claire, Quebec, she clearly remembered leaving Glenaladale, as her home was called, one bright, September morning in 1956. Packed off to join her two older sisters at boarding school at King’s Hall College in Lennoxville, Quebec, the very shy nine year old turned to wave to her dad on the train platform. Not seeing him, she turned and faced straight ahead, sitting alone with her small hands in her lap, stoically accepting her fate as the train pulled away. Her adventures were just beginning.
A special grade was created for the school’s youngest pupil with Miss Gillard as the only teacher. In the years that followed, Miss Gilly’s teaching and values made a very deep impression on the child. Years later, Vicki would realize just how close Gilly’s philosophy was to that of the Haudenesaunee Longhouse: “respect yourself and others”, “walk at the same height”, “honour your word”, “walk your talk”. Before her trek to school, Vicki recalled playing under a table in Chief Poking Fire’s Village while her father was visiting with the elders. Her very early passion for aboriginal history followed a long, family tradition. Her grandfather Walter Stewart was a member of the Caughnawaga Historical Society and her father David was an honourary Chief of the Blackfoot.
Later, school days over, Victoria returned to Montreal, married and had two daughters, Vanessa and Melani. For the next couple of years she worked as a receptionist at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Montreal as well as a doctor’s receptionist at a private practice. Eventually, the couple divorced and Vicki became a single mom, supporting her two children. Impressed with his daughter’s work record, her father invited her to join him at the Macdonald Stewart Foundation.
Tobacco and tobacco products had been in the Stewart family since the death of Sir William Macdonald in 1917. A life long bachelor, the Montreal philanthropist bequeathed his entire estate to Walter and Howard Stewart, sons of company manager, the late David Stewart Sr. Buying out his brother, Walter Stewart continued to invoke the same principles as Macdonald while the company thrived. Upon his death, son David Jr. established the Macdonald Stewart Foundation for charitable causes, funding many facilities at McGill University, including Macdonald College, Macdonald Engineering building, Macdonald-Stewart Library, Pointe Claire’s Stewart Community Hall as well as many others. Meantime, Vicki’s parents divorced and David married Liliane Spengler.
While at the foundation, Victoria became a tireless workhorse and her passion for history flourished. Under the full support and encouragement of the popular Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, she affected a more positive and factual rendition of the city’s heritage given by city tour operators. In 1982, as director of public relations for the Montreal St. Andrew’s Society, Vicki’s own Scot heritage led to extensive research resulting the erecting of a monument in tribute to Scottish immigrants who perished aboard the steamer Montreal in 1857.
“Victoria Stewart of the Macdonald Stewart Foundation organized the 1985 conference at Lachine, near Montreal where Canada’s fur trade started,” wrote Hugh MacMillan in ‘Adventures of a paper sleuth’. “For this occasion, I assembled my last nor’wester canoe brigade to show some living history.” It was the 5th North American fur Trade Conference, held at McGill University. Victoria was responsible for the entire program, as well as the publication of ‘Le Castor Fait Tout: Selected Papers’. For the first time since the conference was founded in 1965, European presenters participated, and a First Nations panel was included as an official session at Kahnawake, Quebec. This initiative on her part would change the methodology by which historians and academics researched subjects pertaining to First Nations.
“In 1986, Victoria became the guardian of these conferences,” wrote Louise Johnston, editor of ‘Aboriginal People and the Fur Trade’. “For fifteen years, Victoria has given numerous talks and organized events to break down the prejudice in the broader community toward Native people. She has worked with various groups across Canada and the United States. She has published two historical works, and has written numerous articles on early New France and the Iroquois.”
“I remember the day that I met Vicki,” said Paula Loh in Kingston. “I was at my store chatting with a customer about the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards that she would soon be attending. Vicki, there as a customer herself, overheard the conversation and jumped in with well informed opinions on the history of the awards and how that organization could be improved. Intrigued by her knowledge and candour, I engaged her in conversation that day and our friendship began. Vicki was full of ideas, ones that involved getting the community involved, Canadian politics and Aboriginal rights. A phrase that I often heard was, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun?!’ stated energetically with a big smile. It was usually the concluding statement to an idea for a project that tired me out just thinking about it. But it was all fun for her.”
Living in South Lancaster, Ontario, in a former building originally built as a sergeant’s mess in the 1790’s, Victoria remodelled the house baring the original logs and calling her home ‘Thistledown Cottage’. While living here she was ousted from the Macdonald Stewart Foundation by her stepmother Liliane in what was inferred as a ‘cost cutting measure’ in 1998. Liliane Stewart was now president after David’s death in 1984. Vicki, who had worked at the foundation for 20 years, told her stepmother ‘the foundation is giving money to activities it was never intended to fund’. She believed her father ‘would have wanted the foundation money to be spent on medicine, education and Canadian art and culture. Instead, the money is going on art and the celebration of historical personalities that have nothing to do with Canada’. She was fired.
“Oh my, that was a terrible time,” remembered Dorothy Edge of South Lancaster. “But she put her mind into local politics and certainly stirred things up around here. She got things done. That’s who she was.” After a lengthy court battle, Vicky won her pension but left the area and headed west. She remembered a peaceful island somewhere off Kingston that she had visited sometime before.
I first met Vicki at the crime writer’s conference called ‘Scene of the Crime’ held annually on Wolfe Island in 2005. “I understand you wrote a story about my house,” she inquired. “I bought the Herb Armstrong place out on Button Bay.” Now, this was a dilapidated old farmhouse that had been vacant since the Armstrongs had passed away some time ago. Her road to Wolfe Island had been indeed, a rocky ride.
Vicki loved Herb Armstrong’s story and became intrigued with Wolfe Island’s history. “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a historical society right here, on the island?” she said one day as we were having coffee in her kitchen in her new, renovated farm house. Painting her home a bright yellow, she planted several, elaborate gardens to mimic the ones she had left at Thistledown. Her new home was now called ‘Buttercup Cottage’. I thought it was a good idea too. Yeah, the historical society, I mean. The bright, yellow house took a little longer to accept. Well, the concept of the Wolfe Island Historical Society was conceived right there in Buttercup’s kitchen. Then, her innate indefatigable energy aroused, she contacted Brian Osborne, Past-President of the Kingston Historical Society and then President of the Ontario Historical Society who, like so many others was impressed, (and perhaps overcome!) by her vitality and enthusiasm. Yours truly was drafted into the cause, the Wolfe Island Historical Society was formed in 2006 and thanks to Vicki, we had fun over the years with the many activities she involved us in.
And then, this late January Victoria was told she had less than two months to live. Fortunately, she had sold Buttercup Cottage just before Christmas.
I watched as my teacher, mentor and cherished friend scattered a final bag of birdseed across her lawn and then slid carefully and somewhat painfully into her car about four weeks ago. Buttercup Cottage on Button Bay was empty once again, and everything inside including a half ton of area history books, had already left their shelves for Kingston. Inside the bright, yellow walls remained many excited dreams of a new endeavour or project to involve the community in. It was getting dark and we had to catch the boat. It was time to leave Wolfe Island. The bleak and empty gardens would bloom for the new owners later this spring.
Adjusting her hat, Vicki turned and looked at the porch for a full minute, almost as if searching for someone standing there. She then backed her car up, onto the dusty, gravel packed road, devoid this year of snow and ice. She looked straight ahead, and then drove slowly away, again quietly accepting her fate. Her dreams, ideas and adventures were over. She died in Kingston just twelve days later.
Your legacy is already legendary, Scottish Princess and Thank You. Thanks for reminding we people of the islands and river who we are and where we came from. May you soar with the Angels and go with God. ‘Alba go bragh’.
By Brian Johnson, who writes, “a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society will miss our endless cemetery treks to get our facts and dates just right.”
A similar story called, ‘Goodbye Victoria Stewart’ appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard on March 12/12.