Margaret Pidlaski

A teacher of English as a second language, she loved travelling, in part to see the homelands of the people attending her classes

Margaret Pidlaski

Illustration by Team Macho

Margaret Pidlaski was born on June 22, 1954, in St. Boniface, Man. Her mother Hilda, a nurse, met her future husband, Bill, when he returned from the Second World War with tuberculosis and was admitted to the hospital where she worked. Margaret was the youngest of their three children, an easygoing child who avoided sibling rivalry. Indeed, she never fought with Patti, her sister two years her senior, and they did everything together.

Patti helped initiate Margaret’s love for film, music, and theatre. Her favourite was Bye Bye Birdie—the two once sat through it three times in a row in the theatre before realizing that their parents may have been worried. A Monkees concert at age 11 sparked a passion for live music, which led to lining up for tickets to see the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who and others. “She was the essence of the baby boomer generation and everything that was a part of it,” says Patti.

As a young University of Manitoba student, Margaret spent two summers doing odd jobs at Jackson’s Fishing Lodge on Lac du Bonnet, so far north she had to fly in. She subsequently dropped out of school, and soon embarked on a European backpacking adventure with her friend, Gail. Both in their early twenties, they hopped on a steam tanker in Montreal and worked in its kitchen until they docked in Rotterdam. Margaret would spend 25 months abroad, working, among other things, as a cook for the Canadian military in Germany, and enjoying her adventures—including a trip to Paris, after hearing a rumour that Bob Dylan would be giving a concert there (Dylan didn’t show).

Margaret returned to Canada in 1979 and re-enrolled at the University of Manitoba with a new purpose: education. She earned a teaching degree and began a career teaching English as a Second Language. But thanks to summers off, she was able to continue travelling—in part to see where the immigrants she was teaching came from. In 1982, she hitchhiked down the U.S. West Coast into Mexico, intending to find a way to South America’s Galapagos Islands. Her plans were cut short when she was involved in a horrific bus accident that killed more than half of the people (mostly locals) on board. Luckily, a good Samaritan driving by found her in a ditch and took her to the closest nursing station, where she received care for multiple injuries, including a broken femur and several shattered facial bones. Margaret then hitched a ride in a makeshift ambulance to the Texas border and flew home to Manitoba, where she was in recovery for more than two years.

After returning to teaching ESL to adult immigrants attending night courses at local high schools, Margaret was eventually promoted to director of community-based language training for Manitoba’s Ministry of Labour and Immigration in 2002. “People at the branch loved their jobs because they had such a wonderful person at the helm,” recalls her colleague and friend Joanne Pettis. Margaret also helped pioneer the Canadian Language Benchmark, the official standard for describing, measuring and recognizing the language proficiency of adult immigrants and prospective immigrants in both English and French, which earned her national recognition in her field.

Margaret, who remained single and childless, cultivated scores of friends: through her job, from her childhood and family, and her travels. She became extremely close with her nieces. When Margaret would visit Patti, her sister’s young daughters would wake up early and pile into bed with their aunt. And when she’d stay for dinner, they’d argue over who sat next to her. “She got them the presents that their parents wouldn’t buy them,” says Patti. “There were these $100 jeans my daughter wanted. I thought, ‘There’s no way she’s getting those,’ and then the next birthday, she got them from Margaret.”

Throughout it all, Margaret kept travelling, in spite of the setback in Mexico. In 1989 she signed up to teach ESL in China for over a year, after which she took the trans-Siberian railway across Russia, eventually making it to Poland. She also checked Africa, India, Tahiti and Fiji off her list. Late last year she made another attempt at South America. On Dec. 19, she landed in Peru, joining a tour with five others. On Dec. 23, the bus Margaret was on was going too fast on a poor road and was involved in an accident. Margaret was the only casualty. She was 57.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.