One of Gibsons’ stalwart citizens has become the Sunshine Coast’s first recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.
Violet Winegarden was officially presented with the award Tuesday night at Gibsons council, with Mayor Wayne Rowe doing the honours before a packed gallery.
“Violet, we love you — thank you very much,” Rowe told his 83-year-old neighbour, after trading light-hearted barbs about her cats crossing onto his property. “You have an ability to get people to do things.”
In her remarks, Winegarden characteristically shone the spotlight on others.
“Most of these people are volunteers at Happy Cat Haven,” she said of the spectators. “They come and I rely on them for a hundred details … and I am totally thankful. I used to sing, ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’ The truth is, I get by with a lot of help from my friends.”
Winegarden, founder of the Happy Cat Haven non-profit rescue shelter on School Road, said about 6,500 cats “have come and gone from the haven and there’s probably 65 or 70 there as we speak — and everyone’s made their mark.”
The Caring Canadian Award recognizes Canadians who have made a “significant, sustained, unpaid contribution to their community,” and Winegarden was singled out for leaving her own mark on Gibsons by devoting much of her life to community service.
“She is one of the founding members of the Elphinstone Pioneer Museum and has made a great contribution to the Sunshine Coast family history,” Rowe said during the ceremony. “She has helped thousands of abandoned animals to find new homes and has educated residents on how to better care for and nurture their pets.”
Winegarden, 83, was brought by Union steamship to Roberts Creek as an infant in 1929 to live with her paternal grandmother. Her mother had died in Vancouver four days after giving birth to her and, after spending about a month in an incubator, “I was kept alive and warm in a shoebox by the oven door.”
She credits her grandmother with teaching her about the care of animals.
“We all learned total respect for animals. We’d never dream about being selfish about our own needs when an animal was waiting, and that has never stopped in my life. Never,” she said.
Winegarden moved to Gibsons in 1947, marrying one of the grandsons of town founder George Gibson, and said it was just natural to get involved in projects like the museum.
“It was easy. We weren’t a big town. It was nothing like now,” she said. “The museum had a hard time starting, of course, so I started donating stuff.”
After Winegarden and her friends opened Happy Cat Haven almost 20 years ago, some of her best pieces were sent to the museum — to save them from the cats.
“My late husband used to collect grandfather clocks. The cats totally destroyed them,” she said.
In her prepared statement during Wednesday’s ceremony, Winegarden noted that a group of tamed cats is called a destruction, and that “they are well named.”
She apologized to her two sons, Ted, 63, and Nelson, 57, for allowing cats to “almost completely destroy our family home,” adding that her greatest joy has been “seeing the paths my sons have walked and learning a lot from them.”
Other friends thanked included Lola Westall for writing to the Governor General on her behalf, and Rowe, former mayor Barry Janyk, and Dr. Justin McClash of the Sunshine Coast Pet Hospital for endorsing the letter.
Created in 1995, the Caring Canadian Award is the only award for volunteerism given by the Governor General. The blue and gold emblem depicts the maple leaf supported by the heart and the outstretched hand.