A smile that tells a thousand stories

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

A residential school survivor, a master of many trades and an astound believer in the importance of bridging cultures. Dick Bird, 88, born and raised on Couchiching First Nation, always had more than one job to support his family of five. A family that is now his main source of pride.

“I went to a residential school,” Bird said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there and I left school when I was 16 and went to work. We were incarcerated. It was regimented.”

Bird attended the school from 1940 until 1948, and left after the Second World War had ended. He said that time after the war was tough on everybody, especially on the reserve. Despite the scarcity of resources, Bird managed to have fun with his friends and his father, who he never came to accept until he was 13 years old.

“I say my dad, but he was my step father. My dad worked at the sawmill,” Bird said. “He was paid amongst the top. He had a dangerous job. I think he got paid 65 cents an hour. In 1941, he decided to leave there and work as a fisherman.”

Bird said one of the best things that happened in his life was having a stepfather who was so close to him.

“I never really accepted my stepdad until I was 13 years old,” Bird said. “I felt sorry for myself. Everybody had a dad. I did not. It struck me that I had a dad who cared more about me than most dads cared for their children. I went home, gave him a hug and he was my dad.”

Bird was 16 years old when he got his first job at the ice house on Butler Avenue in Fort Frances. They would harvest the ice on the lake after New Year’s and had enough ice to serve the Town of Fort Frances for the year.

“The iceman used to come around twice a week and deliver ice to the house,” Bird said. “He was like the milkman who was out everyday in his milk wagon and horses. You did not even need to direct the horses then. They knew their route so well they’d just stop at each house and the milkman would deliver his milk.”

Bird then tried his luck at a few different jobs, but it was the early 1950s, and being Indigenous did not help with the job hunt.

Dick Bird has devoted his life to raising his family to have respect for others, and to value hard work. – Merna Emara photo

“I couldn’t get work in Fort Frances because I was native,” Bird said. “They just would not hire you. I was at the mill office every morning when they opened up the door at 8 o’clock. They said they did not have anything for me. Boys my age who I worked with in the woods would also be at the mill and they would be hired.”

In 1952, Bird applied to work across the river and stayed there until 1964 when he decided to leave.

“I was offered a job at the General Mills to manage their private resort,” Bird said. “I stayed with them until 1970. There was a change in management after the place burned down after it got struck by lightning.”

After that Bird took Rosie, his wife, and children to Great Falls, Montana, where he only stayed for a month after his workplace went on a strike.

Bird then moved back to the suburbs of Minnesota where he worked as a mechanic before his family joined him.

Bird and Rose have been married for 67 years and had six children together: Bill, Rick, Bob, Peggy, Dan and Donna.

“Over my lifetime, I was hired out as a carpenter, electrician, plumber and heavy equipment operator,” Bird said. “Academically I was terrible. I could never learn anything from a book. I’d have to read it two or three times before it made any sense to me.”

This is why Bird believed in the importance of education.

“If you want to get a job, go to school and learn something,” Bird said. “Learn to do something well and you’ll never look for a job. They’ll come looking for you.”

With six mouths to feed, Bird always had more than one job, working day and night to provide for his family, while never failing to instill in them the importance of education, independence and having a job.

“All my kids are working,” Bird said. “They always had a summer job. I’d take them up the lake and I knew people who owned cottages. We’d go up and work for them, including brushing or window screening. The children worked and when they got paid, they put that aside. They bought their own clothes to go back to school.”

Bird said all he wanted in life was to teach people how to get along. With a lot of hate in the world, much of which he witnessed growing up, he joined the Lions Club in Fort Frances in order to bridge the gap between Couchiching and Fort Frances.

“We made so many friends by understanding that we really aren’t that different,” Bird said. “We have different cultures, but we are trying to attain the same thing.”

Bird added that respect, love and honesty are the first steps to getting along and having mutual respect and understanding.

“There’s so much hate in the world today, which is so terrible as far as I’m concerned,” Bird said. “I think the children today are not taught respect. That’s the biggest problem. A lot of them have no respect for their parents. If your child is being taught respect, they are going to respect your feelings and your belongings and everything will fall into place.”

Now Bird and his wife live at their house on Couchiching, surrounded by friendships they have made over the years – looking forward to the next big family gathering where laughter could be shared and memories made.