Monday at 2 p.m., a parade of vehicles will assemble near Gateway Lodge to offer their drive-by birthday greetings to 100-year-old Margaret Sweder.
If not for the pandemic, Margaret would be getting together for a party with a big crowd of family members and friends to help her celebrate her century achievement.
Her granddaughter from Hazelton has made her a cake and she’s allowed one-on-one visits away from her assisted-living residence but that could take a long time to get to see everybody face-to-face. Margaret is a humble woman and doesn’t like to be at the centre of attention but she’s looking forward to her big day and seeing familiar faces coming for visit during a time when the pandemic has severely restricted family interactions. She calls her daughter Dolores “my caretaker and my chauffeur” and she looks after all her mom’s needs outside of the residence and takes out regularly for a cup of coffee.
“There’s so little that can be done to celebrate with the conditions being what they are,” Margaret said. “The doors are locked for any kind of celebration, but I guess we do what we can do. They’re being a bit lenient with me because I’ve been in here practically since it opened and they know that before the lockups started, I was never a person for running around town. I very much appreciate that they are lenient with me.”
As the mother of nine children, including her three biological kids and six she either adopted or fostered, Margaret has lost count of how many nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren she has. But her mind remains vivid for recalling details of her remarkable life. An example of that is her memory of coming to Prince George for the first time in 1948.
Born Jan. 25, 1921 in northern Saskatchewan, Margaret Sawatzky and her eight siblings grew up on a homestead north of Nipawin and Carrot River. One day she was out with her friends when they got talking about places they would like to visit. Margaret told them: “I want to go where there are lots and lots of trees.” A young man in the group had been to Prince George and knew how thriving the forest industry was in the area and suggested that could be Margaret’s destination. That was all the incentive she needed. She bought her ticket and came out on the train, arriving in the city late at night.
“I did not know a soul and I came by myself,” she said. “The train got in at 11 o’clock and the town itself was nothing except a few buildings. I picked up my suitcase and started heading to the dark town and a car pulled up beside me, slowed and stopped. He rolled down his window and said, ‘Miss, did you just come in on the train?’ I said ‘yes’ and he asked, ‘Where are you headed?’ I said, ‘downtown to see if I can find a hotel room.’
“He said, “You can’t walk alone here at night, you better get in.’”
She hesitated at first but got in the car and the man drove her to the Prince George Hotel. It was the only hotel in town and has only six or seven rooms and all were occupied. He helped her in with her luggage and asked the front desk clerk if there were any rooms, but they were all occupied until the next day.
“He said, ‘Can she just stay here in the lobby on the couch?’ and she said, ‘Sure, that’s alright,’ so I spent my first night in the lobby of the Prince George Hotel.
“I found my trees, at least. I’ve always loved Prince George. I loved the atmosphere and the people and at that time there were wooden sidewalks. You could be walking on one side and you would call across to the other side and keep chatting while you’re walking. That’s the kind of town it was, very, very friendly.”
Margaret eventually met her husband, Walter Sweder, and they settled in Hixon, close to the sawmill in Canyon Creek he operated with his father and brother George. Walter was a paratrooper in the Second World War but was mistakenly dropped behind enemy lines in Holland and reported missing in August 1944. After hiding for several days he was captured by German troops and spent the rest of the war in a concentration camp. He was freed by the allies in May 1945 and returned to Canada a few weeks later.
On June 22nd his father Frank, a resident of Woodpecker, died of natural causes and Walter was told the news by a Catholic priest while on a train to Vancouver. Suffering from malnutrition and post-traumatic stress disorder after being so poorly treated in the prison camp, Walter came back to Prince George and his brother Oscar, a fur trapper, who had just purchased an adjoining trap line in northern B.C., gave it to Walt as a welcome-home present.
“That was wonderful, because he desperately needed solace and quiet, a place to recover, and that’s about all I’ll say about that,” said Margaret. “I went up on the line with him many times.”
Margaret was just a young girl when her parents moved from Winnipeg to clear their homestead, one of the many 160-acre parcels of land the Saskatchewan government was giving out at the time to encourage settlers to put roots down.
“Mother and Dad acquired that property during the hungry ‘30s,” she said. “The depression was dreadful, so they opened up unknown land in Saskatchewan and doled it out to people and that’s where I grew into adulthood.”
For the first six years on the homestead there was no school for Margaret and her brothers and sisters until the government finally came up with the money to pay a teacher’s salary. Decades later, when she was in her 50s and her kids were already adults, she decided to do something to make up for her lost education and enrolled in full-time classes at Prince George College.
“I wasn’t well-educated and that September I started school and I had to go back to Grade 8 and by Grade 11 and 12 I had all my certificates, so I got my Grade 12,” she laughed. “I loved the kids that were doing their upgrading, dropouts and so on, and we just had a wonderful time.
“You do what you can at the time and that was my chance. My kids were behind me 100 per cent, running around, ‘Our mother is back in school.’”
All of Margaret’s siblings passed away long ago and she’s the only one who has come close to reaching the century mark. She’s deeply religious and attributes her long life to being just part of God’s plan.
“We were not a family of longevity and that’s why no one can understand, and certainly I can’t, how come I am still here,” she said. “For some reason the Lord saw something that he decided he would keep around for a while. It certainly was his decision or I wouldn’t be here.
“I talk to the Lord and I ask him, ‘was there anything special in mind you thought I should do that I have not yet done?’ But I don’t know. I don’t believe I’ve had an answer.”
Perhaps that answer could be the positive influence she’s had on her family as the matriarch and role model and the need for her to be around a long time to serve as their guide.
“I have a wonderful family,” she said. “They’re quite mixed, and we were discussing that the other day how some are adopted, some are fostered, (Dolores) is biological, some are part-Chinese, it’s just a wonderful mixture. I’ve raised wonderful children and they’re all wonderful citizens.”