The woman who can do anything
At 65, after bearing 20 children, “Grannie” Labine is reeve of a flourishing Ontario township. This doesi rprise her constituents, who’ve watched her build houses, cook for 600 country eaters, dig ditches and run a farm. They call her
Deccmber 2, 1958, found the nickelmining city of Sudbury, in northern Ontario, in the paralyzing grip of a strike. Christmas was coming but nobody had any money. Almost eight thousand miners had been idle for more than two months and settlement seemed as far off as ever. In desperation, a motorcade of a hundred and fifty cars was heading for Toronto, where union spokesmen would discuss the critical situation with Premier Leslie Frost.
Vet the most eye-catching item on page one of the Sudbury Star that day had nothing to do with the strike. It was a large picture ol a sixty-five-year-old FrenchCanadian grandmother named Malvina Labine, who had just been elected reeve of adjacent Rayside Township.
"Widow Scores Upset,” the caption said, and there she sat, looking as if there was nothing odd in a grey-haired farm woman with only grade-school education defeating
the forty-one-year-old incumbent reeve, who had once been principal of the school where she had worked as janitor.
If Malvina Labine was not overly surprised by her victory, neither was anybody else up her way, where she is often referred to as The Woman Who Can Do Anything. Since her husband died eighteen years ago, she has looked after sixteen children, successfully run a farm and market garden, kept a dairy herd, dug ditches, built two houses, taken an active role in church affairs, cared for a dozen foster children, and cooked sitdown dinners for as many as six hundred people at a time. Last November, when she announced her intention to run for reeve, her admirers figured she was as good as in.
One morning not long after her election victory, I taxied eight miles out of Sudbury to interview Madame Labine in Azilda, the hamlet where she lives. Her house was the square brick one on a raised foundation, right next to the Catholic church. The door was opened by the new reeve herself, who greeted me in English (a language she’d learned in childhood from her Englishspeaking cousins) and suggested 1 make myself comfortable on the chesterfield while
she lowered herself into a rocking chair and reached for her knitting.
“Everybody calls me Grannie,” she said.
In a corner of the big living room a little boy with soft browm eyes, too young to go to school, was playing with some tin soldiers. This was the youngest of the eight foster children (some sent to her privately, some by the Children’s Aid Society) currently being boarded in the Labine household. In the adjoining kitchen, Madame’s unmarried daughter Germaine was busy at the stove, for the other children would soon be home for lunch.
As I took in the scrubbed kitchen floor and the blue oilcloth on the table, Grannie Labine gave me the first clue to her character: She is a plain woman and likes plain things.
“The more you have, the more you have to look after,” is her philosophy.
She told me, “Back in 1913 I bought myself a nice muskrat coat for sixty-nine dollars and getting out of the buggy at Mass one Sunday I tripped and fell in the mud. 1 guess it served me right for my vanity. Now I’m not so vain about my appearance. I don’t envy anybody their fancy clothes
^ and twenty-dollar hats. I have a neck like a turkey and I weigh two hundred and twenty pounds. I could live for quite a while on my fat, so if I have a few cents it’s better if I give them to the poor.”
According to what I’d already heard, that is exactly what she does. If anyone’s sick. Grannie Labine’s in there helping; if anybody needs something, she brings it. When the miner who rented a farmhouse she owns went on strike and couldn’t pay his rent, she told him to forget it until he was working again. As the strike persisted and townsfolk began to suffer, she quietly despatched cases of canned goods, children’s shoes, strained baby food.
One of her daughters had told me, “Mother never buys anything for herself.” ^ But Madame Labine scoffed: “Nonsense! Just last summer 1 paid a hundred and sixty dollars for some stainless-steel pots for my banquets! You know I make banquets? From Palm Sunday to October I catered for sixteen affairs. The one on Palm Sunday was a sit-down dinner for six hundred people in aid of the church in Chelmsford. I bought fourteen turkeys and ninety pounds of ham for that one, continued on page 54
continued on page 54
The woman who can do anything continued from page 19
“When her husband was in the lumber camps, she was a farmer. One year she made $1,240.”
and carrots and corn and peas, and we made homemade beans, and bought icecream roll for dessert. The women in the parish cooked the turkeys and I spent a whole day slicing them. Then I prepared two banquets for the church
in Española, and three ordination dinners, and a picnic for my own church, and twice in the summer I catered for wedding banquets three days in a row.” The telephone rang and she excused herself to answer it. One of her friends,
it appeared, was ready to buy half a calf if she would buy the other half.
Back in her rocking chair again, Madame Labine gave me character clue No. 2: She is a good provider and fortunate are her foster children.
She was saying. “Last winter I bought a five-hundred-and-twenty-six-pound cow and some pork and it was gone in seven months. We have two hundred and thirty pounds of veal in my big freezer right now. I buy a hundred pounds of beans at one time, and twenty pounds of shortening, and thirty pounds of peanut butter, and a dozen cases of corn and tomato juice and tomato soup (I make my own pea soup) and four hundred loaves of bread. I fill the freezer with bread and sell the remaining loaves to my neighbors at three for twenty-nine cents, the same price they cost me. The children drink four quarts of milk a day. Their favorite foods are spaghetti and cabbage rolls and home-baked beans with a chunk of fat pork in them for flavor. It’s important that growing children should eat well.”
Even as she spoke, seven healthy-looking youngsters trooped in the side door, removed their snowy overcoats, washed their hands at the sink, nodded a polite hello in our direction, and jostled into place at the table, where Germaine was ladling out a rich beef stew.
Listening to their chatter, Madame Labine said thoughtfully, “I don’t know what gets into people to give their children away. I wouldn’t have done that. Germaine and I never leave these children alone. They’re good children, and we’re willing to work hard to see they don’t go astray.”
A queen and her family
According to those who know her best, Malvina Menard has always worked hard. She was thirteen when she left home to work as a nursemaid in Sudbury and nineteen when she married a young blacksmith named Joseph Labine. They settled down in a small shack on a few acres of fiat farmland, twelve miles from Azilda, in Rayside County. In the next twenty-nine years she gave birth to twenty babies. Four died in their infancy. Six sons (Romeo, Gerrard, Robert, Leo-Paul, Raymond and Bernard) and ten daughters (Yvonne, Germaine, Lucienne, Aline, Laurette, Lorraine, Adrienne, Jeanne, Thérèse and Claire) still survive.
Too many children? She never thought so.
“When I went to Mass on Sunday with all of them walking behind me, I felt like a queen.” she says.
She didn’t have a queen’s life. During six months of the year when her husband was off in the lumber camps, she was the family farmer. Each spring, she sowed a garden of one acre that she could hoe herself. One year she made $1,240 profit from its produce. She milked cows, baked bread, lugged buckets of water up the hill, heated them in big boilers on a wood stove and gave every child a Saturday-night bath. Twice a week in summer she climbed out of bed at 3 a.m. and worked in the cucumber patch till dawn, an old oat bag tied around her waist. (When it was full, by her reckoning, it was a bushel.) Then she piled fruit and vegetables and eggs into her rickety old truck and headed for the Sudbury market. Whoever arrived first got the best vendor’s stall, next to the butcher. She always arrived first.
Joseph Labine was a good man, but cautious. For years he saved lumber to
build a house, but then he decided to build a barn for his eight horses and cows instead. The house would come next, he promised.
That was how things stood one morning in 1941 when he set off for the market. Madame Labine stayed home ihat day with her new baby (as she puts it in her colorful English, "When you have your twentieth child you don't come out of bed like a cork pops out of water!”). Her friend, Madame Sara Trothier, recalls bumping into Joseph Labine as he emerged from the market cafeteria at noon. He was a big, jovial man who weighed two hundred and cighty-six pounds and enjoyed his food. He told Madame Trothier, “Well, if 1 die today at least 1 had a good meal!” Two hours later he dropped dead of a heart attack.
Malvina Labine thus became a widow at forty-seven, with nine children under sixteen to support, and nothing but debts. The shack was so old that snow came in the windows. The children crowded around the stove hoping to warm themselves for the long march to school, but what heat the stove gave out the draughts along the floor dissipated.
Another woman might have called it quits, but not Madame Labine. She traded five of the horses as down payment on a tractor and scrapped the old jalopy with the dangerous brakes for a new truck, payments to be carried by her three oldest sons who had just found work in the mines.
Then she turned her attention to the house.
Her daughter Laurette recalls the day her mother called the family together and told them, “Tomorrow I'm bringing the stuff to market and I'm going to see Monsieur Labarge (the lumber dealer). Watch for me when I come back. If I’ve made a deal, I'll toot the horn and that means we'll tear down the old house and build a new one.”
"We waited and we heard the horn,” Laurette says. “Fifteen minutes later the chimney was down. I still don't know how it was done.”
Madame Labine was determined to have a good basement, so the boys got explosives and blasted away enough rocky terrain to build a cement foundation. The school board gave permission for the three oldest girls to stay home and help their mother build the house. A carpenter brother-in-law donated services and advice for fifty-five days at five dollars a day, but it was Malvina Labine who directed operations and did most of the heavy work, sawing lumber, hoisting two-by-fours, pounding in nails, laying hardwood floors.
The only time she slipped up was when she put hot lime instead of hydrated
lime in the shavings for insulation, with the result that when it rained the house caught fire. Her son Genard, now a garage owner in Sudbury, says, "We were all sleeping in the grain shed and I had to take the alarm clock to bed with me and wake up every hour to make sure the house wasn’t on fire. One morning I didn’t wake up until 10 o'clock, and five men with fire hoses were fighting the flames. We had to take the boards off and let the lime out.”
By the end of September, they had moved into the house, but it wasn't until
late November that they got the brick siding on. Since they had no more money, the house stayed unfinished inside until the following summer, when the whole family picked potatoes for their neighbors and spent their w'ages on paint. Then, as the girls crack-filled the Gyproc and enameled the four upstairs bedrooms, Madame labine rolled up her sleeves and skilfully papered the downstairs. The only job beyond her was the construction of an outdoor steambath where the children could scrub up after a day in the fields. A
Scandinavian workman built her one for seventy-five dollars.
Now that she was a widow, she worked harder than ever. She pressed hay, threshed grain, picked potatoes, hoed her one-acre garden, cooked meals, sewed, and knitted warm winter clothes. Once she and Germaine earned fifty-five dollars helping workmen install a heavy culvert, and when a janitor was needed for the new school Madame Labine applied and got the job.
“It wasn’t human the work my mother did!” marvels her daughter Adrienne.
She knew a spot where succulent raspberries grew, and she'd pick them at night and start selling at dawn. By 9 a.m. they'd be gone, and Leo-Paul would be despatched home to the berry patch where his sisters were gathering a second load. One summer they made two hundred dollars on black currants alone.
When it came to training her children, Madame Labine enforced strict rules. The young Labines were expected to attend church, pray devoutly, make themselves useful, help one another, and do what they were told without argument.
If a child carelessly tore his clothes, he was made to sit down and mend them. If he misbehaved, he was punished at once. She discouraged her sons from smoking, but when she discovered them in the barn passing around cigarettes she invited them into the house. Her daughters were brought up to believe that smoking and drinking were for men only.
“I'm lucky in my children,” Madame Labine says. “All my daughters are good girls, and my married sons, thank God, are crazy about their wives.”
Her children recall that she never showed favoritism. When eleven of them married in seven years she gave each one the same send-off: a big celebration with turkey and vegetables and pickles and pies and ice cream. After an early nuptial Mass the wedding party would return to the big farmhouse for breakfast, then off to the photographer's for the wedding portraits, then home again for another bite to eat, and then the long afternoon filled with dancing and joking and singing, leading up to the big dinner laid out on the best tablecloth
and centred by the towering bride’s cake. With mother at the piano and Leo-Paul or Genard on violin, and Jeanne on guitar, and Romeo on clarinet or sax —for they were all natural musicians and had accumulated an assortment of second-hand instruments over the years —they had no need to hire an orchestra.
Almost before she realized it, all her children except Germaine and young Bernard were married and gone. The big farmhouse seemed empty and meaningless. That’s when she decided to take in foster children.
Daniel Fenny, executive director of the Sudbury Children’s Aid Society, says “This is a family-loving community and plenty of middle-aged women apply for foster children when their own families are grown up and married.”
What made Madame Labine’s case unusual was that she applied for four at once. Two months after her youngest daughter’s wedding she had installed a family of two brothers and two sisters in her home; six months after that she had found room for four others. It was almost like having her own children back again.
Over the years, the Children’s Aid Society has had the best of relations with Madame Labine, whom they regard as a warm, understanding person with a lot of common sense. A case worker who has known her for ten years says, “She got around thirty dollars a month for each child in her care, but she was never in it for the money. Whenever I had a problem child I thought immediately of her. She was a real grandmother type, the kind that gives kids little bits of dough when she bakes. I remember when one troubled little boy confided that he’d never gone fishing, she bought him a fine new rod and delegated one of the older lads to take him down to the creek. When a little girl set her heart on a winter coat that cost more than the budget provided, she chipped in four dollars from her own purse. She kept in touch with their teachers, and checked on their homework, and Saturdays she’d pack them into the truck and take them to a Bingo or a church picnic. Sunday morning saw
them all lined up for Communion. It’s considerable training for a Catholic child to live in her home.”
The Church has always loomed large in Grannie Labine's life. On its behalf, she has sold raffle tickets, organized bazaars, arranged Bingo games, cooked innumerable dinners. For six years she was president of the local Catholic women’s organization, and she spearheaded the drive for funds for a new rectory.
The only time her children ever saw her cry was when one daughter wrote home that she was marrying a Protestant. Finally Madame Labine dried her tears and decided to leave it to the Blessed Virgin, to whom she has great devotion. She organized the whole family in a round of prayers and novenas, and after a year they received word that the sonin-law had become a convert!
For years, Madame Labine’s dearest wish has been to go to Rome and see the Pope. Last spring, she had saved up $2,200, but she decided to pay off the mortgage on her house in Azilda instead. “I felt more comfortable that way,” she explains.
Until last November, she had no political aspirations,, although she had spent all her life in Azilda and was thoroughly acquainted with township affairs.
She throws clean dirt
To realize what she stepped into, it is necessary to know something of Rayside, a township of thirty-six square miles, northwest of Sudbury, of which Azilda is the hub. Ten years ago a farming community, today Rayside is practically a suburb of the city. In six years its population has jumped from 1,460 to 3,790, and its interests are reflected in such Sudbury Star news stories as: Azilda Passes Curfew Law for Children, Wild Fowl Sanctuary Considered for Azilda, Dog Sled Derby Coming to Azilda, St. Jean Baptiste Day Celebrated with 25 Floats in Azilda, Volunteers raise $15,000 for New Azilda School, Fire Brigade Organized for Azilda, and Principal of Bilingual School in Azilda Denies English Pupils Taught Prayers in French.
Over this colorful community, until Grannie Labine came along, presided Tyne Castonguay, onetime school principal who has lately devoted his talents to running a patent-medicine business.
When she was asked to run against Castonguay for reeve, Madame Labine thought it was a huge joke. But, after consideration, she consented.
“Some people throw an awful lot of dirt at other people when they get into politics. Some day they’ll get it all back on their own heads, but it won't be from me. I intend to fight a clean fight,” she told her cheering supporters.
Nevertheless, dirt—good clean dirt, that is—played its part in her campaign. Culverts and ditches are important issues in the country, and last year Grannie Labine built her own culvert and braced it with muck from the smelters at Copper Cliff at fourteen dollars a load. When people stopped to stare and ask “Why are you doing this hard work yourself?” she told them characteristically, “I am doing it myself so I will know how to do it.” Later, a road gang widened Azilda ditches and propped up her displaced culvert with light dusty sand at five dollars a load. Grannie Labine was furious. “Muck costs more, but it stays where you put it,” she told reporters, and at least one newspaper story was headed, More Muck in Ditches if Azilda Widow Wins.
Election night found Madame Labine setting out sandwiches and cakes and
doughnuts and coffee in the town hall for campaign workers of both sides, at her own expense. "Win or lose, I’ll have a party,” she had sworn. An unprecedented turnout of women voters swung the tide her way on the last poll and when the defeated Castonguay shook her hand and told the press “Madame Labine is a fine lady whom I’ve always admired” she learned she was the new reeve by a majority of sixty-eight votes.
An hour later, in line with FrenchCanadian custom, bonfires were burning in front of the homes of the defeated
candidates for council. The biggest blaze of all illuminated the front of Tyne Castonguay’s Patent Medicine and Confectionery Store.
Now that she’s reeve, Malvina Labine has her work cut out for her. There are trees and flowers to be planted in the civic centre, gravel to go on the shore of a nearby swimming hole, amalgamation with neighboring townships to discuss, roads to improve and, above all, people to be helped.
How she’ll do it remains to be seen. Her admirers have no doubts.
Dan Fenny of the Children's Aid Society says, “She’ll be more concerned about people than about the budget” and Philippe Lefebvre, the butcher who worked alongside her at the market for thirty-six years, says, “She’s going to be the best reeve Rayside ever had.” Townspeople testify to her honesty and good intentions. But the supreme accolade comes from her son Gerrard.
“Mama can do anything.” he says proudly. “I predict she’ll improve the whole township and take the taxes down too.” ★