Granddaughter of Chief Billy Assu alive and well and living in Port Hardy

Jessie with her paint brushes

Jessie with her paint brushes

You never know where you might meet a fellow Campbell Riverite, or find a piece of Campbell River history.  Although she spent most of her life in Port Hardy, Jessie Roland, now in her late ’70’s was born in Campbell River, one of the daughters of Mary Assu – who was a daughter of the first wife of Chief Billy Assu of Cape Mudge, or ‘Uncle Billy’ as everyone knew him.  I learned all of this over breakfast during our holidays in September, when we stayed at the bed and breakfast that Jessie owns and operates in Port Hardy.

Jessie has often been encouraged to write about her colourful life, but she is a self-proclaimed procrastinator and may never set about accomplishing the task.  She agreed though, to pass on some information to me for Ezabu and the following is a brief synopsis.

Jessie, whose Native name is ‘Nigei’, meaning mountain, grew up in Seymour Inlet on a floathouse.  Her father, Nils Gunderson was a logger from Norway, and her mother Mary homeschooled the children.  From an article written about Jessie and her family in the ‘North Islander’ from May 1980, I learned that her mother also took in laundry, washing it in a gas powered wringer washing machine.

When she was eight years old, the family moved to Port Hardy so that Jessie and her two sisters,  Joyce and Queenie, could attend the one room schoolhouse there.  She completed Grade Nine, then rather than finish highschool by correspondence, she and her sisters went to Vancouver.  In those days, the Union Steamships were still operating, and the girls would visit home taking the 24 hour boat trip from Vancouver to Port Hardy.  She recalls that the ships were very elegant and it was great fun, with them stopping at every port of call along the way.

During the summers Jessie worked as a ‘whistle punk’ (signaling the movement of logs) for the Johnson and Stuart logging company on a small island in Quatsino Sound.  She was the only woman working in the camp, but felt comfortable as she had grown up around logging.  After high school, she went on to Normal School in order to become a teacher.  After teaching for two years in Port Coquitlam, she took a trip to Europe and travelled around with three other teachers for a year and a half, during which time she also worked as a supply teacher in London, England.  ‘Innocence abroad’ is how Jessie describes her time there.

Upon returning, she once again went to work as a whistle punk, this time on Nigei (her namesake) Island, and here she met York Roland, a logger, whom she married in 1956.  Jessie continued teaching while raising their son and daughter, then one day was approached by a woman who admired her flowers and asked if she could do arrangements.  Word got around about Jessie’s talent and by 1969, she and her husband York had opened a garden centre, which she ran successfully from her home for many years.

She began dabbling in painting in 1990, taking her first lessons.  As no one up to that time had organized any sort of art show to display local artists’ work, Jessie took up the task.  The show was held at the Quarterdeck Inn and was a great success, with Jessie herself selling 13 paintings.

Jessie with one of her paintings

Jessie with one of her paintings

Today, Jessie continues to produce scenes of the area, painting in watercolour and sketching in pencil. Her work is on display in her large home and her bed and breakfast guests, who come from all over the world, can enjoy her gallery.

When asked if her mother’s Native heritage has influenced her thinking, Jessie said that it has, in the sense that she firmly believes that everything in our life is there for some reason.  Certainly the path of her life is one where either through design or by coincidence, opportunities came her way that she made the most of, and Jessie is clearly a capable business woman who has been able to fulfill herself both spiritually and artistically.

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