Wilfrid Vachon was born on a farm near Glen Robertson, Ont., about 120 km east of Ottawa, on Aug. 18, 1929. For most of his life, he never strayed far from the flat, rural land that was home. He and his seven siblings attended a small country school in Glen Robertson, less than an hour’s walk from their house. But Wilfrid, the fifth child in the family, preferred to work with his hands, and sometimes hid in the bushes or wandered the country roads in lieu of going to class. He was usually left to find his own entertainment, fashioning toys and wagons using nails he picked (iron was scarce) from the ashes of burnt wood.
When Wilfrid was eight, his older sister Blanche asked him to accompany her on a visit to the adjacent farm, where their neighbours were welcoming their first daughter, Colette. Wilfrid’s daughter Ginette says, “When we celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary in 2004, we said my dad first laid eyes on his wife when she was in her cradle.”
Wilfrid quit school by Grade 6, opting to help his father Hilaire work the land. At the age of 18, his mother, Marie-Anne, died suddenly of an epileptic seizure. The teenage boy found it difficult to cope, and left the farm for the first time to work as a logger in Maniwaki, Que. Soon after, he moved to Montreal, and sought out Colette, who was working as a cashier in a department store. By 1954, they were married in a morning ceremony on Colette’s family farm, where the two met 17 years earlier.
The young couple settled in Montreal, where their first two children, Francine and Yolande, were born. But after about two years, Glen Robertson called them back. “They wanted to get out of the city and raise their family where they grew up,” says Ginette. In 1957, Wilfrid and Colette bought a plot of land from Hilaire, just south of where Wilfrid was born. As the family grew, their farm grew with them. Colette had four more babies—Helene, Yvon, Ginette, Chantal—and in 1973 they relocated to a 25-acre hobby farm, just next to Wilfrid’s first home.
Now a construction worker, Wilfrid decided to build the family’s 1,800-sq.-foot bungalow, where he would remain for the rest of his life, employing his sons and daughters to collect fieldstones for the face of the house. The family and the land were the centrepieces of Wilfrid’s life, and he prided himself on cultivating them both, growing vegetables and raising pigs, rabbits, and chickens to feed his children and wife. Wilfrid’s only son, Yvon, sometimes followed his dad to worksites. Yvon, who now works in construction, says, “People liked working with my dad. He was a man who would never quit, never get discouraged. He would always find a solution.”
In 1984, when Wilfrid was 55, he suffered a heart attack and spent several days in a coma. During that time, his legs were amputated, one above the knee and the other below the hip. The man who had spent his life doing physical labour could not wear a prosthesis, and would never walk again.
When he returned to the farm in January the following year, he was depressed, but determined to remain active. He converted the garage of his home into a workshop easily accessed by an elevator. Greg Cockerell, a neighbour of 18 years, says, “I remember him cutting his firewood, sitting on the ground with logs that were eight to 12 feet long. These were heavy pieces of wood.” But not too heavy for Wilfrid: he’d cut the logs with a chainsaw, then split them with an axe, using a hook he designed to catch and move the wood around.
He employed the same ingenuity with gardening. Wilfrid would hoist himself in and out of his chair, and use a trolley to stay low to the ground. He considered the land life-giving: when his daughter Yolande was dying of cancer in 2007, he insisted she move home and eat eggs from his chickens every morning for strength.
Twice a day, Wilfrid patrolled his acreage and neighbouring farms, often traveling by electric wheelchair on a paved country road. “My mom was always afraid he was going to get hit,” says Ginette. Colette convinced her husband to attach a large sign to the back of the chair that read, “Slow-moving vehicle.” On July 10, as Wilfrid was making his rounds, a car heading northbound on County Road 23 struck him from behind, just 45 m from his home.
Wilfrid’s body was flung from his wheelchair onto the field of his father’s farm where he took his first breath. Wilfrid was 80.