When Cece Hodgson McCauley wanted something, she got it.
Former NWT senator Nick Sibbeston remembers Hodgson McCauley, who died on March 11 at age 95, as a fearless, spirited and civic-minded leader.
During Adrienne Clarkson’s tenure as governor general, Hodgson McCauley wanted to attend a throne speech in Ottawa. Sibbeston remembers telling her his plus-one was already taken by his wife.
As he sat in the senate chamber waiting for the arrival of the governor general, in walked Hodgson McCauley beside one of the cabinet ministers – she’d waited outside the building until she saw someone she knew and talked her way in.
“I think she’s just marvelous,” says Sibbeston.
This is how many in the North remember her, as do readers of her column, Northern Notes, which appeared in this newspaper every week for 40 years.
“The North lost a fighter and a valuable person this week,” says Jack ‘Sig’ Sigvaldason, president of Northern News Services, which publishes News/North.
“Cece worked 50 years to encourage Dene children to seek more education, fought for the North and wrote more than 2,500 columns for us, some of which I agreed with. She leaves a legacy and will be missed by many, me high on the list.”
This was, however, just one side of a woman who lived a full life of business, leadership and community-building – and a life that, as her family knows, was always centred primarily on her loved ones.
Cecile Hodgson McCauley was born in 1922 at Canyon Creek, between Norman Wells and Tulita. After her mother died, she went to residential school in Fort Providence.
She would credit the education she received there with her success throughout the rest of her life and always thereafter encouraged the young people in her family and her community to get their education, according to her close friend and former employee Don Sandercock.
As a young woman, she worked at Port Radium on Great Bear Lake. Sandercock says there’s a photo of her in an edition of Time Magazine from the ’40s, holding pitchblend used in the Manhattan Project in her bare hands, smiling for the camera.
It was a smile that would gain her a following wherever she went. According to her daughter-in-law Carol McCauley, Cece would say, “Everyone was always falling in love with me.”
James McCauley, known around Fort Norman as Mac, eventually won her hand with wit and wisdom. They had a son, Herbert and would ultimately divorce, but Cece always maintained he was the love of her life.
In 1958, she moved to Aklavik to run a restaurant for Stan Peffer, a frontiersman and entrepreneur from Edmonton, where Cece had been living off and on.
When Inuvik was founded, she moved to the new town and opened The Rec Hall.
Her little sister Muriel Foers (nee Hodgson), remembers her treating patrons at The Rec Hall the way she treated her family: with love, laughter and generosity.
Everyone who was hungry would eat, even if they couldn’t pay. Muriel says there was one old prospector, Red, who would come into town every once and a while and they would give him a bath, cut his hair, shave his face and give him some new clothes – all of which he’d endure because he knew a hot meal was coming in the end, too.
“That’s the type of person she ways,” says Foers. “She was really good. She loved to help people.”
Foers says Cece treated her as if she was Cece’s own daughter, moving to Fort Resolution when she went to residential school there, buying her new clothes and always having cookies ready when Foers would come and visit with her friends.
In the second act of her life, Cece would go on to found the Inuvik Dene Band and would be named honorary chief for life, getting her involved in the political scene. After land claims and new organizations run by the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in came to be, she moved back to her homeland in the Sahtu and became president of the Norman Wells Land Corporation.
According to Carol, Cece’s focus was always on bringing jobs and prosperity to her people and she always valued hard work. In her eulogy for Cece, Carol stated “she would say that she was a simple woman who was doing a job. A simple woman only in the terms of one who was not full of self-importance or one grabbing the attention to herself.”
In her community, she’d encourage her neighbours with a smile and a laugh
“If the young boys were drinking and that, she would give them a talking and say, you know, smarten up, get a job and in the meantime she’s feeding them,” says Foers. “They never left angry. She just talked to them loud and they’d say, ‘OK Cece,’ give her big smile and that was the end of it. They all started laughing.”
Her son, Herb, says she wasn’t a disciplinarian by any means, but she was never a pushover.
“If you experienced her wrath, you remembered it,” says Herb with a laugh.
In doing her work, especially, she was a force of nature.
Foers says she had friends working in government offices in Ottawa who would tell her about her sister’s visits. Cece would walk in and ask, “Is this the government office?” and they’d say yes.
“And she’d say, ‘Well, I’m a part of that government. It belongs to me,’ and order them to photocopy her work,” says Foers, “And I’d think, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to throw her out.”
They would get “so upset” because it wasn’t their job, says Foers, but they would do as Cece asked.
“One of the girls knew me and she said, ‘We just dreaded when we heard Cece was coming to town,'” says Foers, laughing, “and in the end, they couldn’t wait to see her and do her work for her.”
In her later life, Cece would start the Women Warriors of the Sahtu and lobby for a road up the Mackenzie Valley, to bring economic development to her region.
When she was hospitalized with a broken arm at the end of February, doctors found she had cancer and not long to live. Her remaining time would be shorter than anyone expected, though.
Foers says Cece was content and happy in her final days, mentioning her sons Herb and Todd and her grandchildren, saying, “I did very well, didn’t I?”
Foers said that Cece asked her how long she was going to stay with her in the hospital and Foers said she would stay until St. Peter found Cece’s key.
“I said, ‘He’s looking for it in the box right now.’ And she just burst out laughing,'” says Foers.