When Ruth Christie was a young girl her grandmother told her parents she had a gift and the 80-year-old Selkirk resident is still sharing that gift with others every chance she gets.
The gift? It’s multi-faceted, but includes an incredible memory, the ability to listen and then turn around and captivate those lucky enough to be present for her storytelling. She’s used her gift her entire life to be the keeper of the Monkman family history, which just so happens to be significantly intertwined with Manitoba’s history.
“My grandmother saw that I had this gift,” Christie said.
“And she gave me some things and one I really paid attention to was she told me the Creator gave you two of these, and she pointed to her ears, and only one of these, and she pointed to her mouth. So I realized I had to spend twice as much time listening as I did talking.”
The highest of honours
Christie was one of 12 Manitoban’s presented with the Order of Manitoba this year for dedicating “her life to Indigenous history preservation, education and service to the community, notably in her storytelling, historical re-enactment and teaching to scholars, students and the general public. Through her work, she makes a deep understanding of Indigenous, colonial and Canadian history accessible to people in Manitoba, as well as nationally and internationally.”
Christie speaks publicly, in schools and universities and has been involved in video productions, most recently she was part of a group that created a documentary called ‘Song for John Ramsay’.
The City of Selkirk presented Christie with a Certification of Recognition in light of the honour and to show its own appreciation of her contributions.
“I’m really proud to recognize Ruth and to congratulate her on receiving the Order of Manitoba,” said Mayor Larry Johannson.
“I can’t think of a more deserving person for this honour. Ruth has spent countless hours educating young and old alike on the history of our province, our city, her ancestors and more. She’s an engaging storyteller and she makes you want to learn about history, and that’s really important. She’s impacted a lot of lives, and she’s just a super lady.”
Almost too good to be true
Christie didn’t believe it when a phone call came from Lt. Gov. Janice Filmon this past April informing her she was being named to the Order of Manitoba.
“I thought, it’s my girlfriend,” Christie laughed.
“We play jokes on each other, so I thought, oh, they’re going to pull this joke on me. So I said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re kidding.’ I didn’t realize it really was Janice Filmon, and she said, ‘I am not kidding’.”
When it sunk in that it was real, Christie, who’s been recognized countless times for her dedication to keeping history alive, was taken aback.
“It was almost overwhelming to tell you the truth,” she said.
A recognition well deserved
Humble and unassuming, it would come as a shock to Christie. But to those who bear witness to her boundless energy, her incredible storytelling and her unabashed love for the work put in by those who came before her, it is a foregone conclusion that she will be recognized at the highest levels.
“I’m just doing what I love to do, you know? And I’m sharing the Indigenous history, as much as I know from family and archives,” Christie said.
A walking history lesson
Among the stories she tells are those of her great-great-grandfather Joseph Monkman, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who had many titles, among them interpreter, because he spoke several languages. Joseph’s father came from the Orkney Islands, making Christie’s heritage a mixture of Cree and Orcadian.
Her great-grandfather, John Ramsay, aided the Icelanders that were settling in the Gimli area, teaching them how to build log homes and how to fish under the ice.
Christie worked at Lower Fort Garry for 20 years, beginning in 1987. The Fort was evolving at the time, and was beginning to recognize the Aboriginal role in the success of the men from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
“Only in 1987 were they starting to portray the Aboriginal side of Lower Fort Garry and they put the Tipi out on the ground and that’s about it. So I got hired on then,” she said.
Her job title was Kookum, which means grandmother in Cree, and she helped develop the Aboriginal content at the Fort, for which she was recognized with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal.
A strong belief in her history
When she started, Christie told her bosses that in her role as an interpreter, she would like to be Joseph Monkman’s wife, Isabella, as she had their stories well documented. Her suggestion fell flat, however, with her boss telling her oral history doesn’t cut it at the Fort.
“She said, Parks Canada wants documentation,” Christie chuckled.
“So all the stories my grandmother told me, they were in the archives. So I came and put the documents on her desk and she kind of pretended to be gruff, but really she wasn’t, and she said, ‘okay, you can be Isabella Monkman.”
She never missed an opportunity to subtly or not so subtly nudge her superiors down the correct historical path. Case in point, there was no sign indicating Monkman’s Creek at the Fort, so Christie began questioning why and then one day when she walked down to the creek there was a very big sign that read ‘Monkman’s Creek Restoration Project, three phases’.
When the housing development was going up across the highway from the Fort, she saw the developer’s name on the sign out front, jotted it down and called him. She wanted to know what the street names were going to be. When he replied with names like Trafalgar and Sussex, she pointed out they were all British names. The land was the Red River Settlement and so she suggested some pioneer names.
The gentleman wasn’t opposed, Christie said, but he couldn’t do anything about it. She’d have to contact the St. Andrews Reeve of the day, Don Forfar.
Which of course she did, and Sussex Drive is now Monkman Drive.
Christie was recognized by the Icelandic National League of North America in 2020 with the Joan Inga Eyolfson Cadham Award, which recognizes individuals who have been outstanding in the promotion of Icelandic culture and heritage. In the summer 2020 issue of the INLNA newsletter, it reads: “Ruth Christie, a member of The Selkirk Bruin Chapter, Selkirk, Manitoba in 2001- 2004, was chosen as The International Visits (or IVP) person for The Icelandic National League of North America and went as a Cultural Exchange Participant to Iceland in 2003. As IVP Ruth spoke about the pivotal role that her grandfather John Ramsay played in our existence. The Icelanders surely would have perished if not for John Ramsay’s help. Like Joan Inga Eyolfson Cadham, Ruth is a Professional Storyteller and often speaks to the public and schools about the Native Culture and The Icelandic Culture.”
Christie says part of her determination to keep telling historical stories is that she has benefitted from decisions made by her relatives all those years ago.
“Aboriginal people, they made decisions to affect seven generations forward. And when the first Orkney men came, it was Isaac Monkman and sons James and John, I’m the seventh generation that came to Canada from then,” she said.
“Beneath that prophecy, I’ve benefited from the decisions that my ancestors made.”