MARJORIE ANNE HEINRICHS was born in Morris, Man., on March 2, 1956, the second of six children born to Helen and Sydney Reimer, a financial adviser. Marj, a redhead with a fiery personality and a yen for storytelling, grew up in the prosperous, conservative Mennonite community of Rosenort. She was an opinionated and curious tomboy—not your average Mennonite girl. TV and radio, the church believed, were a sin. Hard work brought you closer to God.
At 14, she met Jim Heinrichs, “the cutest boy in school,” as she described him. Gentle Jim, shy and soft-spoken, was her polar opposite. They married in 1974, after graduating from Rosenort Collegiate, and moved onto a hog farm west of town. At 19, Marj gave birth to Tom. Jen, Katie, Sara and Billy soon followed. Life was merry, but not without bumps. No one worked harder than Jim, who also managed the local lumberyard, but in the ’80s hog prices hit rock-bottom. Interest rates and feed prices were sky-high. In 1986, they had to sell the farm and move into town, where Jim took over G.K. Braun Insurance from father-in-law Sydney. Marj was devastated—she loved that old farm.
Marj was a news junkie who never shut off her beloved CBC, and landed a job with a community paper, the Scratching River Post, to help with the bills. That caused quite the stir in Rosenort, where women still don’t work outside the home. Marj shrugged off the whispers, dragging Sara and Billy—then still in diapers—across southern Manitoba on assignment. Soon, she herself became a familiar radio voice on the CBC. Once, says Jen, she skydived live on the air, “hootin’ and hollerin’ all the way.”
In 1990, a story brought her to Roseau River First Nation, the neighbouring reserve. Reporters had drawn straws for the assignment. Marj got the short one. She’d begged to be reassigned, she later told then-chief Lawrence Henry. She was terrified, sure she’d never make it off the reserve in one piece. “Next thing you know,” says Lawrence with a chuckle, “we couldn’t get rid of her.” Marj never looked back. She reported from across northern Manitoba and Ontario, wrote histories of the Mishkeegogamang and Big Trout Lake First Nations, and launched a consultancy, Rosetta Projects, organizing community health assessments, fire and flood evacuations, and research projects for reserves. Jim made it possible by learning to cook, clean, and keep the home fires burning, no matter what anyone thought. Marj was happiest working up in Mish and Red Sucker Lake, Jim loved Marj, and that was that.
Tragedy struck in 1994. Tom, their music-loving 17-year-old, and his two young cousins were killed one night when their car collided with a combine. Marj grieved deeply; Jim turned inward. Those were dark days. Marge found comfort and acceptance at Roseau. She loved sweat lodges, especially: the hiss of water hitting scorching rocks, the darkness, drumming, and mournful songs. It was Tom’s time, the elders gently explained, nothing more. She went to Lawrence in tears. The prejudicial stories she’d heard about his people, she said, “were all lies. All I’ve ever got from you was compassion.” In her deep loneliness for her boy, she began fostering Aboriginal children: Cody, Martha, and a dozen more. Callie, whom Marj helped raise from infancy, still calls her “mom.”
After Tom’s death she left the church. She no longer saw the world as black and white. She’d come to understand the double stigma of being born both poor and Aboriginal. Hard work, sometimes, just isn’t enough.
With Marj, a bridge, finally, had gone up between the two communities. Physically, only the Red River separated them, but for 150 years they’d existed as parallel universes. “Never mind racism—Mennonites moved to North America to escape from society,” explains Marj’s brother, Peter. “We didn’t even talk to French people.” Marj, who had one foot planted in each side, pushed her community to understand what made their native neighbours tick—and vice-versa. “She tried so hard to clean up that negative stereotype of us,” says Roseau’s Lucy Ducharme, a close friend. As for Ducharme’s white neighbours? She has come to realize that, “They have problems too.”
On Nov.9, Marj was heading home from the reserve to change for an evening sweat with Lawrence. As she crossed Highway 23, the halfway point between Roseau and Rosenort, her Chevy Impala was broadsided, instantly killing Marj. She was 54.