Book pays homage to courage and resolve

Author Kay Johnston pens second book about British Columbia's First Nations people.

Recording history: (Above) Originally from England

Recording history: (Above) Originally from England

It may have been the bannock that piqued her appreciation, but it was admiration for the cook that sparked a second book.

Local author Kay Johnston first introduced Squamish elder Mazie Baker in her first book, Spirit of the Powwow.

“She is what you would call the lost generation, post residential school – they knew nothing,” says Johnston who was introduced to the woman by way of raving about her bannock at a powwow. “Here was this dynamo churning out bannock in a tiny kitchen and graciously asking me to  come on in.”

Baker, who died last spring, was unable to read or write and had no knowledge of her own culture.

But that didn’t stop her from advocating for her people and fighting unscrupulous band councils in the process.

“Once her husband died she became very involved with band policies,” says Johnston, noting the feisty aboriginal woman earned the cautionary phrase “don’t mess with Mazie” in the process. “If I was sitting in her living room typing and talking, she’d get phone calls saying, ‘Auntie we need your help.’ She was a pivot in that nation.”

Johnston says it was by sheer chance Baker heard the Squamish Nation council was pressing Ottawa for self-government.

“Her people were not aware; she got on her high horse,” says Johnston, noting a small group travelled the length and breadth of the Squamish Nation making sure people knew what band council was up to. “Then they headed off to Ottawa where ultimately Baker argued against self-government before a senate committee in Ottawa.”

Baker fought other battles for the benefit of her people and had a heart attack in the middle of a meeting on another contentious issue. She died later in hospital.

But that battle was won with three band councillors being thrown off band council, says the author.

Johnston says Baker’s daughter told her it couldn’t have been better for her mother, to die “while in the thick of it.”

Battles were nothing new to Baker whose parents pulled her from a North Vancouver residential school when she was very young, fleeing across the line into Washington State.

For seven years, her family survived by picking whatever there was to pick during the growing season and working on Seattle docks during the winter.

“They didn’t dare come back across the border,” says Johnston, noting the family returned to Canada when Baker was well into her teens.

Baker went to work at the Gore Street Canadian Fishing Company’s Home Plant in Vancouver in 1947 when she was 16.

Married at 20, Baker gave birth to seven children and was determined they would get a good education. Most of her children continue to be very involved with their culture and the powwow, says Johnston. “I love the people – they are a gentle people overall and they have respect for their elders,” she says, noting she and Baker became very good friends during the writing of the book Amazing Mazie. “They have such huge battles.”

Johnston will be using her book as the basis of a workshop she will present at the annual writers’ festival, which has been renamed Word on the Lake, a festival for readers and writers, which takes place May 25 to 27 at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort.

Writing one’s own memoir, or someone else’s life story, is like fitting jigsaw pieces together to see the full picture, Johnston says.

This workshop will provide participants with practical strategies and tools to help fit the puzzle pieces together and learn strategies to make their manuscripts interesting as opposed to a resumé.

Participants will take home work sheets they can use to keep  on track in creating a wonderful picture of a life, says Johnston, who encourages them to take any work they have underway to the workshop with them.

There is a limit of 25 participants on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information on the festival and to register, visit