Remembering Margot Kidder’s northern spirit
John Kidder, born in Yellowknife in 1947, returned to the city this week to spread the ashes of his sister, Margot, in Frame Lake.
Margot Kidder rose to fame as Lois Lane in the Superman movie franchise but, her brother recalls, never lost her connection to the North.
Now the husband of federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, John stopped in at Cabin Radio this week to remember Margot, their childhood in Yellowknife and elsewhere, and how the city looked in its early days.
Margot passed away in May 2018 at the age of 69.
She became an actress in Canadian TV and film in the 1960s before her big break as Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve’s Superman in 1978, plus three sequel movies.
Margot was still appearing in shows in 2018, following decades of balancing acting commitments with political and environmental activism.
John went on to co-found the BC Green Party in 1983 and is to contest a BC federal seat on behalf of the Greens in this fall’s election.
Listen to John Kidder’s interview in full as part of the Friday, July 5, 2019 edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News.
This interview was recorded on July 3, 2019.
Ollie Williams: Welcome back to Yellowknife. Does it feel like a welcome back, from your point of view?
John Kidder: It absolutely does. I left here when I was four-and-a-half years old in about 1952 or so. I came back in 1984 for what was called the ’50th Homecoming’ and, at that point, my parents were still alive. They were fêted all over town as pioneers of early Yellowknife. I watched my father sit with Max Ward and Wop May drinking tumblers full of rye whiskey and I was just amazed at the stories that were coming out of these guys. It was astonishing.
But my sister Margie and I lived in the North, you know. We ended up in Labrador and Sept-Îles in northern Quebec. And so we thought of ourselves – Margie especially, all of her life – as northerners. And even though her career was of course international, and she was world famous more than I could possibly have stood, her spirit was the spirit of a northern girl. She carried that all the time and she carried it really proudly.
When she was down at Standing Rock, the protest down there against the pipeline, she recaptured being in the North – because it’s bloody cold. You know, the prairies, North Dakota in the wintertime is no place for a weakling. Margie was able to just walk back into that as a northerner.
As soon as I break out of the clouds and I see the little trees and the rocks all over the place, and little bits of water, I just feel profoundly at home. It’s quite remarkable. It feels great.
The level of connection that Margot Kidder felt to Yellowknife is part of the reason you’re back here.
Most of the folks up here will know that Margie died last year, May 13. She died in southern Montana, where she had lived for years and which is an amazingly beautiful part of the country. As part of her last wishes, she wanted me to bring some of her ashes back to Yellowknife and some back to Labrador. Those really were the places that she felt had been her home.
We put some of her ashes in Montana in a grizzly bear meadow because, really, what she wanted was to be left out in the woods to be eaten by the grizzly bears. She loved grizzlies… but that’s just no longer permitted these days!
I felt very honoured to come up here. I had to get through airport security yesterday and they said, ‘What’s in this silver box?’ I said, thinking quickly, ‘Clay,’ because I know it’s not really a good idea to be carrying human remains around.
I put some of Margie in Frame Lake this morning. I have pictures of Margie and I at four and three years old, paddling around in Frame Lake and there was no town here then, to speak of. It felt like a profound reconnection, it really felt good: putting me back together with Margie, getting Margie back with the North. I still have enough that I’ll carry on to Labrador and do the same there.
I think it’ll be heartwarming for a lot of people to hear you describe just how highly she thought of her northern heritage, particularly given – as you’ve already said – what happened to her since, and the fact that she spent a period of time as one of the best-known people in the world.
Actors are actors. When they come back from doing their movie things, they come back, generally, to being the people that they are. But they’re people who have a public persona. As you know, I’m now married to Elizabeth May. Elizabeth is not quite as famous as Margie, although that may be happening in the future – when she’s Prime Minister, she will be.
People take great liberties with public personae. People will walk up to two people who are having, clearly, an intimate conversation and just stick their heads right between you and say, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt, but I just wanted to say…’ – and people did that to Margie all the time, but she always maintained her persona.
Margot Kidder poses for a Superman promotional shot.
One of the greatest examples, the time when I was most impressed with Margie, was in Yellowknife in 1984. We came back up for that 50th Homecoming, as I said, and we’d been out the night before on rather a spree – Margie was welcomed back to Yellowknife by some people who liked to party and we spent quite a lot of time in the ‘Strange Range’ and we drank an awful lot of tequila. I was feeling worse for wear the next day and, at the theatre here, they showed Superman. And this was ’84, so Margie was at the peak of her world fame.
There were kids there getting autographs who were lined up out the door of the theatre and down the street. Margie sat for at least two hours, signing autographs, and for every single child – some of whom may be hearing this broadcast – every single kid, she had a personal question. ‘So do you have brothers and sisters? What are their names?’ Every single one had a direct, personal contact with her. It wasn’t fake. There was nothing phoney about it at all. But it was absolutely professional. I was so full of admiration watching her do that work – it still chokes me up to think of how she did that.
But in the family, no, in the family she was just my sister, she was my best friend. We lived in camps like Yellowknife and then Sept-Îles when there were five ‘Anglos’ in the town, and in Labrador City. When my mother moved up there she was the only woman in the place. She turned up with five children in a construction camp of 2,500 guys.
So Margie and I went from town to town, school to school together, and we were pretty-much always the only people that we knew in these towns. So we developed a very, very strong sibling relationship and she was my best friend. Absolutely.
You mentioned your mother just there. Last year you passed on some of your mom Jill’s letters to Edge YK, a magazine up here, who published a selection of them. They are amazing in terms of the day-to-day detail of of life in early Yellowknife. Here’s an excerpt:
The citizens of Yellowknife are having a feud with the town council about dogs. About three weeks ago a man broke into the council meeting carrying a paper bag containing the body of his puppy, which had been killed by huskies, and demanding that the council do something about it. There had been other complaints about the big dogs running in packs and attacking small dogs, so the city fathers decided to pass an ordinance demanding that all dogs be tied or on a leash. Well, the outcry was terrific! So last week, when the third reading was to take place, a great tribe of dog-lovers attended the council meeting. There was no organization of any kind – no spokesman, or anything sensible like that. The meeting started out very sedately with the usual reports and reading of the minutes. Then the chairman, who is a stupid and ineffectual little man, announced that the dog ordinance would now be discussed. And it was. By everybody, at the top of his lungs, and all at the same time. The dog-lovers screamed at the members, who screamed back. Ruth Stanton stood up and announced that if the law were passed she was going to tie her three dogs to the chairman’s clothesline, and then went into a long tirade about the damn bitches who cause all the trouble.
Read more: Jill Kidder’s letters on Edge YK
Two things from that: one, Yellowknife hasn’t changed in some respects because I can still see that meeting about dogs happening now. But two, your mother’s writing!
My mother was a fabulous writer. One of the last things she did was to collect the letters she’d written from the North in those days into a book she called ‘Dear Family.’ It’s a prized possession in the family.
There’s one other letter where she makes casual mention of 40 tonnes of cyanide in a barge dropping into the big lake and, ‘Here we are up here, mucking around for gold, casually doing killing all sorts of things in the vicinity for this metal, which is only of some kind of imaginary value.’ Mom was kind-of an early activist. I’m sure she was at that dog meeting, with an opinion. I don’t think she had a dog, but she would have had an opinion, surely, and it would have been expressed.
In Labrador later on – in 1960, not much later on – my mother read Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which was one of the beginnings of the environmental movement in North America and the world. Rachel Carson documented the effects of DDT was having on the eggs of large raptors, causing the egg shells to be thin and chicks not to hatch. And then, as happened in towns all over the North, you’d have a spray truck going around, pumping out clouds of DDT. You had to kill the mosquitoes somehow, otherwise the places were uninhabitable. We kids used to play in those clouds because there were no bugs. It was remarkable, the only place in the world where there were no bugs.
When my mother read Rachel Carson’s book, she singlehandedly took on the town council – such as it was in Labrador City – and the Iron Ore Company of Canada, which had a lot more clout than the town council, and she got them to stop spraying DDT. Which is an unbelievable thing. Everyone in town was fiercely opposed to my mother’s ideas, because they didn’t like the damn mosquitoes and the black flies even worse.
She wrote these letters and if you read them enough times, as I have, you realize they’re written largely to either to her mother, or to my father’s mother. Between the lines, there’s rather a lot of stuff left unsaid. You know, ‘Kendall [her husband] is off in the Barrens again for some time. I expect he’ll be back before winter.’ You know, things like that just kind-of dropped, casually, into a letter where you realize that my mother is at home in a caboose – her first married home was a caboose on the rock – with two small children. Little bits like that. Her letters were just remarkable.