In the early hours of New Year's Day in 1961, a log cabin in the remote community of Lutsel K'e, N.W.T., caught fire.
The blaze, which started under the kitchen stove, spread quickly throughout the home where four young children slept. Their babysitter, Celine Natoway-Marlowe, only nine years old herself, leapt into action, waking and leading the three oldest children outside.
But when she realized the baby, who was eight months old at the time, had stayed hidden under the covers inside, she ran back into the burning building to coax him out.
Lighting a spark
Ret. S/Sgt. Garth Hampson was working in Fort Reliance at the time, but had been sent over to the patrol cabin in Lutsel K'e for the period between Christmas and New Year's.
Hampson remembers waking in the early hours of the morning to shouts of "Fire!" outside his door. Walking out the door, he saw that the home behind the patrol cabin was engulfed in flames.
"There was no volunteer fire brigade, so we tried to put it out but there was only snow to use and it ended up burning to the ground," says Hampson. "And then after, the story came out that a nine-year-old girl pulled three kids from the house and then went back for a fourth."
Impressed by the young girl's bravery, Hampson wanted to see her recognized. At the time, the RCMP didn't have any awards for civilians, and he contacted the territorial government based in Ottawa, but nothing ever came of it.
In 2011, Hampson brought his son back up to Fort Reliance with him. They found themselves at a spiritual gathering about 140 kilometres away and his son asked the group if anyone remembered the young girl who saved four kids from a fire. Standing beside him at the time was none other than Celine Natoway-Marlowe.
"I couldn't believe it," says Hampson. "When I got back, I knew this was meant to have something else happen."
Ret. C/Supt. Ron Mostrey, the former commanding officer of National Headquarters, and Hampson set out to secure Natoway-Marlowe the Commissioner's Commendation for Bravery, making her the first non-RCMP member in the Northwest Territories to receive the distinction.
Cpl. Jesse Gilbert, the detachment commander in Lutsel K'e, was asked to help organize the ceremony in town. As a family friend, he'd known Natoway-Marlowe for a while and yet had never heard the story. In fact, very few people had.
"It was actually surprising how many people didn't know the story — especially in a town where there's only about 320 people here," says Gilbert.
Natoway-Marlowe had never even told her own family. "I never talked about it," she says. "Only now I'm telling them how it happened and where it was. My kids keep telling me, 'You were only nine years old, mom!' I said, 'I know.' "
But at the ceremony, it was clear that Hampson wasn't the only one who had remembered the act in the more than 50 years since.
"The subchief got up and spoke on behalf of the chief, who was away that day," says Gilbert. "So she read her speech, but at the end, she added, 'On a personal note, I'd like to thank you, the people you saved are my family.' It was nice to put it into the perspective of how many people it really affected."
Coming full circle
For Hampson, who's been retired from the force for 24 years now, seeing Natoway-Marlowe receive her award was a satisfying conclusion to something that's been in the back of his mind for 53 years.
But the best part of the day for Natoway-Marlowe, who teaches at the local school, was that the students were given the afternoon off to go watch. While she's reserved about both the act and the honour, Natoway-Marlowe's voice brightens when she talks about what it meant to her to have them there to witness the ceremony.
"When I'm in class, I always talk to the students about how to be respectful," says Natoway-Marlowe. "I just remind them who they are and where they came from. 'Be proud of who you are,' I always tell them. When they all saw me get this award, they were proud of who I am, I guess."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 2, 2014).