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Born in 1934 in Masset, Haida Gwaii, Rosa Fanny Harris saw a good deal of B.C. before moving to Bowen. Until the age of five, she lived with her Haida mother and English father in Masset. They then moved to Prince Rupert, then Hazelton, then back to Prince Rupert, and then Vancouver. Rosa finished high school in Langley, and started work as a lab technician in a provincial lab.
One fateful evening in 1958, Rosa met a man named Georg Helenius at a dance in North Vancouver. Originally from Finland, he had moved to Canada the previous year. The two became friends, and in August of that year, they got married. They kept dancing even as they moved to Bowen two years later, and often attended the Union Steamship dances. After the steamship era, they moved on to the Legion Hall. Because Georg came from Finland, which fought against Canada in WWII, he could not become a Legion member. However, he always attended as Rosa’s guest.
As the Helenius family grew with the additions of Bobby, Georg Jr., and Scott, Rosa got involved in her community. She became well-known for her prolific knitting, and the bread she sold at the General Store. When the drapes in the Legion Hall needed to be altered, Rosa learned drapery-making to fix them. She was the BICS secretary from 1977-1981, where many fondly remember the sandwich birthday cakes she gave to coworkers. Rosa was a representative for the B.C. Heart Foundation, and a secretary for the Recreation Commission in 1973. When asked about her work, Rosa said: “You have to work at living, you have to work in a marriage, and if you live in a community you have to work with that too. If you give a little, you get a little and that’s what makes the world go round.”
Following the tradition of extraordinary Bowen postmistresses Lucia Becker and Mrs. Thompson, Rosa ran the Post Office from 1989-1993. During her time there, a terrible storm hit, knocking out power for most of the southern coast in 1990. Despite the freezing temperatures and lack of heating in the Post Office, Rosa persevered. She lit coal oil lamps and candles, wore warm sweaters, and sorted and delivered the mail. When the Canada Post Pacific Division got wind of this, they awarded her the Silver Postmark award for her service. In 1991, the Canada Post Corporation awarded her the Golden Postmark award, complete with an invitation to a dinner and ceremony at their Ottawa headquarters. Upon accepting her award, Rosa modestly explained “I do what needs to be done.”
Rosa stayed in touch with her Haida relatives as well, returning there for her uncle Oliver Adams’s appointment as Chief. She made a button blanket for the occasion which we are honoured to hold at the museum to this day. “It was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life,” she later wrote. “During the actual ceremony… it was like I was coming home.” Rosa made a point of learning some Haida basketry before leaving, to add to her long list of crafts.
Though she passed away in 2001, Bowen remembers Rosa Helenius as an extraordinary woman of many talents who worked hard to give her community a better future. We hope her story inspires you to “do what needs to be done” for your own communities, wherever they may be.
To read more about other extraordinary women from Bowen Island, head back this way.