She grew up with two maids and a gardener.
Now, Gale Peel counts herself lucky to have a roof over her head.
“Everybody has a story that will break your heart,” said the slender 50-year-old from her Riverview Hotel room.
Pictures of her four children are propped up beside the television; clothes are neatly folded on the spare bed and toiletries line the bathroom counter.
For Peel, this is home.
There is a microwave and a tiny fridge in one corner beside a box of canned soup and instant meals.
“I got this food parcel from the Salvation Army,” said Peel, who retains a trace of her old South African accent. “And a friend lent me the microwave.”
Chipper and well dressed, Peel doesn’t let on she is destitute — not until pressed.
Currently on welfare, she is living on $200 a month, after rent.
“It’s a pittance, honey,” she said.
“You can’t live on that.
“People complement me on my clothing — it’s all free bins, darling,” she said, taking a drag on her cigarette.
“I can’t afford the Salvation Army (store), it’s too expensive.”
Peel grew up in South Africa in a gated, guarded mansion during apartheid.
A secretary working for the Kwa Zulu Finance and Investment Company, she helped low-income families find housing.
When her first-born was 15 she sent him to Australia to join her ex-husband. If he had stayed in South Africa he would have faced army conscription.
“It almost killed me,” said Peel, who has only seen her son once since, on his 21st birthday.
The escalating violence in South Africa in the early ‘90s forced Peel, her second husband and their three young girls to emigrate to Canada.
“I didn’t want my kids to grow up carrying guns,” she said.
Her husband’s brother lived in Toronto and sponsored their immigration. He also helped her husband obtain his Canadian mechanic’s papers.
But Peel had trouble finding work.
“I would wear my fancy suits and come in with a resume and people would giggle at my accent,” she said.
She ended up bartending, slinging food in food courts, working in several coffee shops and in a factory making fruit cups.
“I took what I could get,” she said.
It was better than facing her husband, who drank heavily.
“He was physically, mentally and verbally abusive,” said Peel.
However, he didn’t touch the kids and he was a functional alcoholic who kept his job.
“I stayed with him because of the kids,” she said.
But when her oldest was 12, she took the girls and left.
“I was led to believe that if I left my abusive husband, social services would be there for me, but then (Mike) Harris got in and cut mother’s allowance by $300 a month.
“And my husband never gave me a cent for milk and bread for the kids,” she said.
Peel and her girls were living in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Catherines, Ontario.
It was difficult, she said.
“When you have too many rats in a cage they start to bite each other.
“And, after the Harris cuts, I had to give my girls back to their father,” she said, her voice shaking.
Peel spent the next 10 years working odd jobs, just scraping by, before deciding to move north.
“I detest Ontario; it is filthy dirty,” she said.
“And I always said, ‘One day when my children are older, I am going to the bush.’”
While still in St. Catherines looking for jobs on the internet, Peel came across a picture of the Yukon’s mountains and said, “I’m going there.”
Two weeks later she was on a Greyhound bus, with a job waiting for her at the High Country Inn.
She rented a home on Jarvis Street and settled in.
Last summer she gave up her house and took a barmaid job in Burwash, which was followed by a waitressing job in Destruction Bay. That ended in November.
She had stored her furniture and possessions with a friend and her boyfriend.
When she came back, the boyfriend had left her friend and appropriated all Peel’s possessions, refusing to give them back.
“I went to the cops, but they said they couldn’t do anything,” said Peel, who plans to take him to small claims court.
She found herself homeless.
“I had nothing but what was in my bags — no bed, no furniture, pots, pans, plates,” she said.
“And when I walk by (this guy’s house) I can see my curtains in the windows and my paintings on the walls.”
Peel looked at some furnished bachelor suites, but they were filthy dirty, tiny and too expensive.
“I wouldn’t put a dog in those places; I would have gone insane and jumped in the river.”
There are plenty of older men who offer Peel places to stay, but all these offers come with sexual expectations.
“I don’t want to be some older guy’s trophy girl,” she said.
“And the low-cost housing is noisy; there’s drug problems there — you can’t live there and work or go to school.”
All humans have to have a place to go and a place to work, she said.
“I want to be a contributing member of society, but I need a career, not a job.”
Peel recently passed her college entrance exam and plans to begin working toward a business administration degree at Yukon College next semester.
“Why should I come to Canada to go backwards?” she said.
“When I moved here, Canada was the number one place to live in the world.
“Now it’s number six or something.”
Life has not been easy for Peel.
“I’m too rough around the edges to return to South Africa now,” she said with a bitter laugh.
“You know what you feel like on welfare?” she asked, tears welling in her eyes
“A piece of shit.
“It’s easy to lie in bed with a pillow over your head. But I realized I had to pull up my britches and get going.
“I let myself go for too long — I’m on a mission now.
“All I want is a one-room cabin in the bush with a bed in one corner and a sewing machine in the other — not a mansion on a hill.”
The sad reality is that Peel’s story is just one of many, said Yukon Status of Women co-ordinator Charlotte Hrenchuk.
“I interview lots of women who are homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless,” she said.
Lots of women who leave abusive husbands have nowhere to go — and in the Yukon it is very difficult to find safe, affordable, decent places to live, said Hrenchuk.
“Especially if you leave with nothing. You don’t have many options.
“What is a woman to do? She has a bunch of kids, she is trying to feed them and take care of them and she’s getting no help from her partner — she’s fled her partner for safety’s sake,” she said.
“This happens up here a lot, it’s quite acute.”
And it seems to be a growing problem, said Hrenchuk who cited the rising number of women using the local Salvation Army shelter.
“Welfare rates for a single person are ridiculous,” she added.
Hrenchuk had just seen Peel, when she dropped by the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre to work on her resume.
“She got a job slinging beer again,” said Hrenchuk.
“But she is going to go to school to take some courses and she is feeling more hopeful.
“She’s trying hard.”