No two trees are the same, nor any two leaves.
It may sound like a simple lesson, but have you ever stopped to look and appreciate that fact? Anyone who was lucky enough to have Josephine Sias in their life did.
“Anything you’re looking at is not to be treated as generic. You have to really, really be aware and look at what’s surrounding you. I think she taught that to everybody,” said Linda Wondga, Sias’ daughter.
“She certainly taught it to us, from a young age. We were brought up that way, to appreciate what we have, that is around us every day.”
There are a number of things that Sias’ appreciation of nature could be attributed to. To begin with, “she was born into it,” said Wondga.
On October 21, 1927, Sias was born in Burwash Landing to Louis Jacquot and Mary Copper Joe. This was before any highway existed.
“She was born in the middle of nowhere, and she was raised in a totally different way than what people are now,” said Wondga.
Despite leaving Burwash for school, first to Whitehorse, then to France and eventually to Vancouver, Sias always found her way home.
After meeting and marrying Frank Sias, whom she once described as “her best choice,” she returned to Burwash Landing.
The pair manned roadhouse lodges along the Alaska Highway as they became parents, and eventually moved to Whitehorse where Frank took a job at the Donjek Pump Station.
But in 1972, the couple found their way back to the Kluane region.
They settled at Silver City, on the south end of Kluane Lake, where they had lots of land but only remnants of the former army base camp.
Within two years they built themselves a small cabin, a garage and a carpentry shop for Frank.
And in 1974, the couple was put in charge of a Parks Canada program called the Conservation Youth Corp.
“Mom and Dad were the obvious choice,” said Wondga. “Not only because they lived there, but also because of their personal background. They were very knowledgeable about wilderness, they were capable managers, and it wouldn’t be hard to place 16 kids in their hands and have a real strong feeling that it’s probably going to go well. And that isn’t something you would find with most people, but that is the kind of people that they are.”
For five consecutive years, Frank and Josey put the 15- and 16-year-olds to work building cabins from scratch (many of which are still used by the Kluane National Park) and cutting and grooming trails like the Kluane Glacier trail. The teenagers learned activities like rock climbing, canoeing and how to catch, clean and cook fish. They lived in tents in different places of the park each year and learned a lot about themselves, as well as nature, said Wondga.
“Mom was everybody’s mother, and more,” she said. “She had a strong belief in young people. Probably because of how she was brought up; she was raised by people who had a strong belief in her and her potential, and I think she always felt that young people maybe didn’t get enough of that. She always wanted to, and was very, very good at connecting to young people.
“Immediately, she could get them to talk and speak about themselves and what they might see around them and what they saw ahead of them and what their future might be.”
Sias was always “only a phone call away,” whether it was for her own children, her father’s family in France, or friends she met along the way.
But her encouragement for young people to look forward and have confidence in themselves was definitely something she did “in a big way,” said Wondga, pointing to the success of the Conservation Youth Corp. and its participants.
At Sias’ funeral in Burwash Landing last week, Youth Corp. alumni spoke about how it changed their lives. One man even said it saved his life.
“The effect that one person’s kindness has on people was very much on display at Josie’s funeral and the following tea at Silver City,” said Math’ieya Alatini, chief of the Kluane First Nation. “The outpouring of loving words and stories was amazing and confirms the power that one person has in the world. Kluane First Nation has lost a wonderful person and her smile and spirit will be greatly missed.”
Wondga points to her mother’s infectious interest in learning as a big part of her effect on people.
Even in her older age, Sias would accompany scientific treks out to the Kluane ice fields and fostered a personal library that “speaks for itself,” said Wondga.
Sias was even learning sign language in the last few years of her life, just because she was interested in it.
“She had so many interests that took her many different places and connected her to people all over the world,” said Wondga. “She was universal. She was comfortable in all cultures and around all people.
“It was interesting watching her live her life and enjoy every minute of it.”
Sias passed away on August 24, two months before her 85th birthday. She is survived by her widower Frank, her children Wondga and Douglas Sias and four grandchildren.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at