Jo-Ina Young, Métis knowledge-keeper, is a force of nature

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle
Jo-Ina photos
Left and top right photos by Christine Henry Arts. Bottom left photo provided of Jo-Ina’s horse, Wee Briar.

I met Jo-Ina in a ribbon-skirt making workshop. The last time I had been around a sewing machine was in grade seven and I was so stressed that I broke out in my first case of hives. Jo-Ina took charge of my nerves. I don’t even know how she did it. All I know is that I was sewing ribbons on my skirt in no time. 

Jo-Ina was a whirlwind as she twirled from table to table in the gym of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, assisting a handful of ribbon-skirt-making newbies. She sewed a fringe on the bottom of my skirt and made it look beautiful for the 2018 Victoria Day Parade. Every time the parade paused we danced a Métis jig. A pick-up truck carried fiddlers and other music-makers in its box in front of us.

I could tell the moment I met Jo-Ina that she was full of fun and maybe a bit of mischief. When her grade eight sewing teacher tried to fail her for not hand-basting an apron, Jo-Ina’s mother, who generally preferred to let her daughter sort out her own troubles, was so angry she whacked a ruler on a desk in front of the teacher. She knew her daughter’s sewing abilities. “Alright, I’ll give her an A. But she’s not coming back to my class!” the teacher retorted.

Jo-Ina’s mom was an extremely talented businesswoman and seamstress. When the school had no ribbons for games, Jo-Ina’s mom took it upon herself to fashion some. Before she knew it she had quit cleaning other people’s homes, and had three sportswear manufacturing businesses of her own, a genuine rags-to-riches story. She made crests for hockey, baseball, and police jackets.

One day Jo-Ina used her mom’s chain-stitch machine and sewed all the police jackets’ gun pockets closed. If you pull one thread then all of the stitching comes out. The officers didn’t know that, though. Talented, creative, and strong-willed with a classic Métis practical jokester sense of humour, Jo-Ina was a teenager when she pulled that prank.

Jo-Ina was 19 when she married her first husband who, sadly, died the night before I interviewed Jo-Ina in December 2020. May he rest in peace.

Jo-Ina Young didn’t learn that she was Métis until she was 51-years-old, the same age that her mom was when she passed. Jo-Ina’s mom and grandma never spoke about their family history. Distancing oneself from any Indigenous ancestry was the order of the day. When Jo-Ina requested her genealogy she paid $89 and was handed a book — records of her family are extensive. Born Dec. 7, 1954, Jo-Ina’s ancestral roots are deep and wide through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. She lived in her birth town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan for one year before her family moved to Nanaimo and later to Campbell River. Ironically it was her dad, a first generation fellow from England, who told Jo-Ina stories about her Métis ancestors.

Jo-Ina received another shock when she was 51—a doctor told her to go home and make a will, because she would be dead in five years. He told her to quit alcohol and salt. While Jo-Ina enjoyed a social drink, she was a diehard salt addict. She quit both. One month later the doctor was, again, cursing her with words: “You’re not going to get better. You’re dying. Why are you crying?” Jo-Ina attended that appointment alone. She doesn’t remember how she got home.

Jo-Ina resisted the doctor’s death sentence. She searched out and found a liver specialist in Vancouver. He said, upon examining her, “Oooo, very sick… Hard path… Maybe a transplant.” She was waitlisted for a transplant. In the meantime she kept minimizing her diminishing health. Even when she couldn’t think properly and she began having fainting spells, one day congratulating herself that she landed smack-dab in-between the cat food bowl and the water dish, she still wasn’t willing to submit to her illness. Her sister eventually stepped in, telling the doctor that Jo-Ina didn’t think she was as sick as the other people in his office.

When Jo-Ina got the call to fly to Vancouver because there was a liver waiting for her, she was just about to sit down to a dinner of prawns that her husband, Vince, had made. She reluctantly left them behind in an effort to fast before her surgery. She travelled unaccompanied, as the cost of air travel at that time of day was prohibitive for her husband. The last ferry had already sailed from Sidney. Her sister in Nanaimo would catch the last ferry from Horseshoe Bay. 

On the journey to Vancouver Jo-Ina was telling her seatmates that she was on her way to get a transplant as though she was on her way to a concert. Once at the hospital she found herself being misdirected one way and then another, walking back and forth for an hour. She chuckled when a nurse made her sit in a wheelchair to be rolled across the hallway. Jo-Ina was in surgery for 10 hours. She lay in ICU for two days before she woke up and was able to speak, her sense of humor still firmly in place. Jo-Ina was joking about losing her ‘tan,’ saying she hoped she had dressed for yellow (jaundice). She has been thriving ever since.

Since the untimely passing of her mother, Jo-Ina has been determined to share her knowledge and skills. She says that three of her beading students have surpassed her and that it is the most amazing thing. 

“Just like your kids…you want them to be better than you,” she says. 

Over and over, Jo-Ina demonstrates the generous heart of the best kind of leader and teacher.

Jo-Ina proudly represents the Métis on various boards of education. She holds her own alongside folks who hold doctoral degrees while she sports a high school diploma. Her pragmatic abilities shine in that milieu.

Jo-Ina makes friends wherever she goes. She keeps her eyes out for the underdogs. One of her early jobs as a seamstress was on a cruise ship called The Love Boat. The ship was regularly dressed in new carpets and other furnishings to keep it fresh and sparkling. The workmen would often be generous with scraps for the crew’s quarters. However, the gay male crew were often overlooked. Jo-Ina charmed bits of carpet for her friends’ living quarters, right out from under the tradespeople. 

Jo-Ina and Vince have been best friends for 28 years and married for 20. Vince was 29 and Jo-Ina was 45 when they fell in love. He is devoted to her, calling her every night at 8 p.m. when he is away working. 

I love all of Jo-Ina’s stories, especially this one: Jo-Ina used to own a Standardbred racehorse named Wee Briar aka Little Prick. Wee Briar had hurt himself on a flight from Australia; he was insufficiently drugged and got a little rambunctious. Jo-Ina bought this horse which would have been worth twenty-five thousand dollars, for a mere five thousand dollars. His injury didn’t affect his distinctive character—if he knew he wasn’t going to win he would stop running right in the middle of the race. Sometimes he would stop so abruptly the buggy would fly up. I laughed at this, feeling a kinship with this horse. One day, his driver at the time, Paul Megan, knew that there was something wrong with Wee Briar but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Jo-Ina brought in Jeremy, a horse whisperer, to ask the horse what was wrong. Paul protested, “That’s impossible. You’re crazy. Oh, Jo-Ina.”

Jeremy said Wee Briar’s right, back leg was giving him some trouble and that he wanted to be put out to pasture after the race. Wee Briar won that race. The ‘win picture,’ available right away, showed that his right, back leg was up, indicating inflammation and pain. Jo-Ina put Wee Briar out to pasture until he was well. He raced for one more year after that. Wee Briar went directly to the stables after his final race, rather than trotting the traditional last lap around the track. The message was clear—Wee Briar was packing in his racing career. He enjoyed the rest of his life at 100 Mile House.

Jo-Ina Young, Métis Knowledge-Keeper, is a force of nature making things happen. I am so grateful to know her. Our communities are better because of her. I am better because of her.