Centuries of stories, from some of Canada’s centenarians

Centuries of stories, from some of Canada's centenarians
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi
Centenarian Betty McGowan, left, shares a memory with her daughter Shelley Coleman in Saint Andrew Residential Centre in Montreal, Friday, May 3, 2024.

The Canadian Press has spent the past month interviewing some of Canada’s more than 11,000 centenarians and their families. These are some of their stories.


When asked how it feels to be 100 years old, Betty McGowan answered, “it’s terrible!”

“Everyone looks at you as if you should have wrinkles, but I haven’t got any,” she said, before turning to stick out her tongue at her daughter, Shelley Coleman, who burst into laughter.

A moment later, she was more philosophical. “I’m not getting any younger, so I might as well accept it.”

At 100, McGowan’s memories are imperfect — and she sometimes makes up a story to fill in the blanks — but her sense of humour is intact. Sitting in a wheelchair at her Montreal care home wearing a bright pink outfit and lipstick, she drew laughter from those around her as she joked about having to use the bathroom all the time and describing her main childhood memory as “being short.”

Photos and gentle prompts from Coleman helped jog her memory.

McGowan was born in Brantford, Ont., to a working-class family, with a mother “who was the best thing about our house” and a father “who would do anything for us.” Later, she enjoyed concerts, movies, and especially dancing — a passion she still enjoys today, with dance therapy classes.

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She worked a series of tough jobs, including stitching baseball gloves and cutting lace at a lingerie factory. She moved to Montreal 16 years ago to be closer to Coleman after the death of her husband, John.

McGowan’s own mother died in her 40s of heart problems, but McGowan says she has always been healthy. “I was lucky I guess,” she said.

Her daughter said McGowan’s advice to younger people is usually to “work hard,” but on the day she met The Canadian Press she said she’d rather have worked less and stayed home with her daughter.

Coleman said that despite her mother never earning much, she reached financial independence through making smart investments that sustain her to this day.

“She was independent. She wanted her own cash, her own money. She invested her money. She was smart and tough,” she said.

Coleman said that, at 71, she’s well aware how lucky she is to still have her mother in her life. “She’s got a huge, huge heart. She’s a wonderful mom,” she said.


Angeline Charlebois, 105, pulled out her most prized possession, which she bought on her 50th anniversary when she was supposed to be shopping for a couch.

But it’s nothing so mundane as a piece of furniture — it’s a luscious mink coat.

She slips it on and shows it off. “That’s my baby,” she chuckled.

Charlebois, who lives in Levack, Ont., doesn’t think too hard about having lived past 100.

“To me, it’s just another day,” she said. Charlebois added she was grateful she still had the “noodles” in her brain and that she enjoyed good health despite losing weight over the years.

She starts each the day with a few rounds of solitaire, one of many hobbies in a schedule packed with chores and socializing.

“I don’t like to sit and do nothing,” Charlebois said, getting up to pull out a box of knitted goodies for her great-grandchildren and newborn babies at the nearby hospital.

Charlebois was born in Minnesota and moved to Saskatchewan with her mother when she was a toddler. In her youth, she worked as household help but wanted to pursue business studies. Then, she met her husband-to-be Eugene one night out at a concert — they would be married for 57 years.

Charlebois said she worked alongside her husband as he ran a butcher shop in Saskatchewan, then followed him to Sudbury when he took a job in mining. He died in 1995 and she has been living by herself ever since.

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She has preserved mementoes from her long life, from her wedding dress and veil to pictures from a trip to Hawaii a decade ago, which she called, “the highlight of my life.”

Socializing and reading are dear to Charlebois. So is the after-church Irish cream in her coffee.

It’s not all been smooth sailing. Last summer, Charlebois said she passed out on her kitchen floor while baking.

“Literally, like somebody pulled the plug on me,” Charlebois recalled. Since then, she has started getting community care at home and has also applied for house care, which has a two-year wait-list.

But Charlebois isn’t bothered about the wait. She says she’s going live to 110.


Every morning at 9 a.m. is an important moment for 104-year-old Lina DeBray, who tunes in the television to watch Catholic mass services streamed from Ontario churches.

“I watch my mass every day, every day I get blessings,” said DeBray.

She says she has plenty of those: two daughters, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

DeBray, who lives in a retirement home in Langley, about 50 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, said the only thing that bothers her about her great age is her physical decline, especially her dependence on hearing aids.

But in general, DeBray is happy with her lot. “I just feel I’ve had a good life,” she said with a smile.

Born in 1919 in the tiny francophone village of Albertville, Sask., about 25 kilometres northeast of Prince Albert, DeBray has lived most of her life in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Her family said DeBray married her husband Arthur in 1942 in B.C. where he was undergoing military training before they headed back to Saskatchewan for what the couple hoped would be a proper celebration with family and friends. But Arthur, who died in 1995, was immediately sent overseas to fight in the war and did not return for three and a half years.

It was not until their 50th anniversary that they finally had their celebration, their grandchildren walking them down the aisle.

It’s not the only thing DeBray decided to enjoy late in life.

She said she learned to drive and play the piano in her 40s.

In her 50s, she decided to take up drinking to accompany visits from her sister, calling it their “happy hour.”

Her drink of choice was gin and tonic, just like the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, she said, as well as “the young one,” referring to Queen Elizabeth II who died in 2022 at the age of 96.

DeBray had a rule though — no more than two drinks a day.

She said old age runs in her family. One of her uncles lived until 102, she said, and an aunt made it to 105.

DeBray said her friends sometimes teased her: “Lina, you are good for another five, 10 years.”

But, she added with a laugh: “I don’t want to live too long.”

— By Morgan Lowrie, Ritika Dubey and Nono Shen

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2024.

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