When Sooke resident Wendy Morton chooses to write a poem, she first starts by listening to a story.
A lifelong poet, Morton uses poetry as a vehicle of communication, even guidance. A few years ago, she made it her life’s passion to work with First Nations’ students, training them to be poets so they can retell and preserve their elders’ stories as poems.
Such things don’t go unnoticed, as Morton was among more than 70 Canadians honoured by Gov. Gen. David Johnston last week during a special ceremony in Edmonton.
She was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, which celebrates Canadians who have performed “an exceptional deed or activity” that brings honour to Canada.
“It’s been an astounding part of my life,” Morton said.
Morton was surprised when she got a call from the Governor General’s office saying she was among those nominated. “I was shocked,” she said.
To date, she has helped create 15 mini-booklets (known as Elder Projects) that collect poems from First Nations students from across Canada. The students ask questions and then write poems for their elders, using “magnetic poetry and photographs.”
“The next day, the students come and they ask their list of questions to the elders and they turn that into the poem,” she said, adding that often, the kids will come up with the title for each elder project.
For Morton, the inspiration came in 2009, when she was commissioned by the Port Alberni Valley Museum to write poems for a book about local history pertaining to logging, road building and other regional activities. It was here when she noticed something was missing from the picture.
“I thought, aren’t we forgetting a population of people that were here thousands of years before us?” Morton said, adding that she decided to set up two chairs in the museum and put a call out for First Nations people to come down and share their stories.
“They became my teachers and changed me forever,” she said.
Creating a voice for the voiceless was just one of Morton’s ideas in the last decade. She was also a founder of Random Acts of Poetry Day, where poets take to the streets and to schools across Canada, sharing poems with anyone they come across.
It started with a simple phone call.
“One day I just decided to try something, so I picked up the phone and called Westjet. I said, ‘Why don’t you give me free flights in exchange for writing poems to passengers?’”
Despite the initial refusal and bemusement by Morton’s strange request, Westjet responded six months later with a yes, and for seven years it flew her back and forth across Canada whenever she needed to spread poetry.
“I’d write poems for the passengers, and that was the most amazing time,” she said.
Not much stands in the way of Morton’s goals. In 2004, she called Chrysler asking them if they could provide a car to help her spread poems on the ground, not just the air.
Chrysler responded with just that. A new PT Cruiser with the logo Chrysler Supports Literacy, giving Morton the wheels for the job all the way to the Maritimes.
Morton split her time writing poetry and her Elder Projects between her day job as an insurance investigator for ICBC for 30 years. She retired four years ago.
On her first arrival in Sooke more than 40 years ago, Morton had a printing press, which, in a way, was a continuation of her passion.
“I was always interested in poetry, and writing, and making big calendars with poems, and doing interesting things with poems,” she said.
She still keeps busy with the elder projects too. She’s about to come full circle by working on another elder project in Port Alberni, while keeping her eye sights on more to come.
“I’ll do it for as long as possibly can.”