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Memoir highlights identity re-forged through tragedy

By: Geralyn Wichers

Posted: 07/29/2018 12:30 PM

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Shirley Hiebert at home on her acreage near Steinbach. Hiebert published Trüdyt’s Daughter: A Mennonite Woman’s Memoir this February.


Shirley Hiebert at home on her acreage near Steinbach. Hiebert published Trüdyt’s Daughter: A Mennonite Woman’s Memoir this February.


August, 1995. A two-seater Cessna takes off from Harv’s Air in Steinbach. Inside: rookie pilot Shirley Hiebert and a flat-nosed dog named Tootsie.

Hiebert turns her wings northward in a flight that will take her cross-country to seven northern communities. She has a skeleton of a plan, which includes using the thick northern trees as a cushion if she needs to crash-land.

It seems crazy now, Hiebert says.

Hiebert decided to learn how to fly six months after her husband, Air Manitoba pilot Abe D. Hiebert, died in a plane crash near Sandy Lake, Ontario. She could barely concentrate, never mind learn the material to get her pilot’s license.

"I felt very powerless," she says. "[When] you actually take this little thing and fly, you have a real sense of control."

In her Steinbach home, Hiebert’s family and friends were telling her that her husband’s death was God’s will. The crash investigation was smearing Abe’s name and holding him responsible. The identity she’d cultivated as Mrs. Abe D. Hiebert was gone.

Unmoored, Hiebert flew to the place she knew she fit in.

Trüdyt’s Daughter: A Mennonite Woman’s Memoir is Shirley Hiebert’s first book, published this February. Hiebert tells how she grew up the illegitimate daughter of a Chortitzer Mennonite woman, how this shaped her life leading up to her husband’s death, and how she rebuilt her identity from the wreckage.

The story begins with Trüdyt Harder, a young woman with a no-nonsense, "take-life-as-it-comes" attitude. She’s accustomed to holding her own in her fractious Steinbach household, Hiebert says in the book.

While working as a maid, Trüdyt becomes pregnant. Her young beau isn’t interested in marrying her. She gives birth to Shirley in December of 1945.

From that time on, Trüdyt was considered "a whore," Hiebert says. It didn’t matter that Trüdyt got married a few years later and raised a family with husband Paeta Rempel. She was bad news, and by extension so was Shirley.

As a child, "I tried to hide," says Hiebert. If asked her who her relatives were, Hiebert would say she was the Schellenbergs’ niece because they were considered respectable people. Marriage at 16 gave her a new identity as the upright Mrs. Abe D. Hiebert.

At 42, Hiebert took a job as a nursing consultant to help establish a nursing home in Oxford House.

"I wanted to be part of Abe’s life. The north was his life."

She fit in "immediately" in the northern community, Hiebert says. "Everyone fits in." The people had a "moment by moment" lifestyle that was not unlike her mother’s.

The people saw her working 20-hour days. A woman invited her camping, and Hiebert was cared for until she felts she had "been transported to a magical world filled with angels," she writes in the book.

After the crash, the communities gathered around Hiebert. "There was just such an outpouring of support and love. Always, always. You could depend on them. Still could. Still can."

"Had I grown up more normally, etcetera, it’s unlikely that I would have sought an escape in the skies or among First Nations," Hiebert says.

Hiebert became an advocate for the northern communities she loved. She entered a PhD program with the University of Manitoba to do research to support permitting the women of the north to give birth in their home communities, instead of being forced to fly to Winnipeg to give birth alone. For her efforts, she was given the name "Black Thunder Horse Woman" by a medicine woman.

"Black Thunder Horse Woman is an identity to aspire to, unlike the label of sin that I’d been saddled with as a newborn," Hiebert writes.

Now 72, Hiebert lives on an acreage near Steinbach where she takes a keen interest in local politics. She ran as the Liberal candidate for Provencher in 2008. Hiebert told The Carillon she plans to run for reeve in the RM of Ste Anne this October.

Trüdyt’s Daughter is for sale at Driven 2 Sew in Steinbach, and at Mennonite Heritage Village.

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