Survival and Resilience

An Indigenous Woman’s Story of Survival and Resilience: The Life of Elizabeth “Kirkina” Jefferies Mucko

Ellen Scheinberg

Rigolet, Labrador, 1901. The Rooms, F43-3

Elizabeth Jefferies, the daughter of an Inuit mother and an Inuit-Scots father, was born in Rigolet, Labrador in 1892. The hamlet, located at the entrance of Hamilton Inlet on the central coast of Labrador, was once home to a large Hudson’s Bay station established in 1836. Most residents fished in this area from spring to fall and moved inland to trap during the winter months.

At the age of two, Elizabeth became a double amputee after her father was forced to cut off her legs due to frostbite and gangrene. According to local lore, her parents died and, as an orphan, she was sent to the Grenfell Mission at St. Anthony, Newfoundland. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell operated hospitals in St. Anthony and Indian Harbour, along with an early orphanage and school in the former locale. His mission served the Labrador community and particularly catered to Inuit and settler children. Dr. Grenfell and his staff fitted Elizabeth with prosthetic legs. He also took her to New York, where he and his team performed 16 surgeries on her legs. On that excursion, Grenfell gave her the name “Kirkina”.

Kirkina (right) and another patient, Ben Cumby, at Indian Harbour, 1908. The Rooms, VA103-12.1.

Once she recovered, she received further care at both their mission hospitals in St. Anthony and Indian Harbour and attended schools the missionaries brought her to in St. Anthony, Halifax and the United States. For several years, she accompanied Dr. Grenfell on his lecture and fundraising tours to the United States and Mexico. Although Elizabeth benefitted from the excellent medical care and education she had received from the missionaries, they removed her from her community, renamed her, and thrust her into the life they designed for her.

At the age of 23, Elizabeth married Inuit trapper Adam Mucko, who was 22 years her senior. They settled in Peter Lewis Brook, a small coastal village in the Sandwich Bay area of Labrador, located near Cartwright. They had seven children and lived a fairly traditional and tranquil life. Tragically, their household was rocked by the influenza pandemic that hit their corner of Labrador during the fall of 1918. Elizabeth’s husband and six of their children caught the virus and died.

St. Anthony Hospital, 1912. The Rooms, A58-3.

The pandemic, in fact, had a devastating impact on the Inuit people of Labrador, particularly in northern communities, wiping out one-third of the population. According to the St. John’s Daily Star newspaper, Sandwich Bay lost 70 citizens out of a population of 350. Dr. Harry Paddon, who practiced at the Grenfell hospital, described the epidemic as “the most devastating of any disease in recorded history.”

Since the family was quite isolated, there was no one to help them out during this crisis. In turn, after the demise of her family members, Elizabeth was compelled to dig the graves and bury them herself. She also performed the funeral service that followed, likely drawing on her years of exposure to religious services and prayer at the Grenfell Mission. Despite her tremendous losses, Elizabeth went on to train in nursing and midwifery at St. Anthony Hospital with Dr. Paddon.

Soon after, Elizabeth returned to her birth home of Rigolet, with her surviving daughter Beatrice. She continued to practice midwifery for over three decades, making house calls to the broader community within 35 miles of her home. She proudly proclaimed to a journalist during a 1950 interview: “I brought 32 children into the world and never lost a mother and baby.” Elizabeth spent her last years residing in Happy Valley and died in 1970. Four decades after her death, a woman’s shelter opened in Rigolet and was named in her honour. And a year later, her story was featured in Merna Foster’s book, 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces (Dundurn, 2011).

A survivor of the pandemic’s devastation as well as her own disabilities, Elizabeth “Kirkina” Mucko has become a local and national heroine whose amazing life story has inspired many Canadians.

View of Kirkina House in Rigolet, Labrador.