Times of crisis bring out both the best and the worst in people. The story of Helene Leclerc is a reminder to judge people by their character and to avoid being influenced by the political rhetoric of the day. 

Helene Leclerc was a fearless pioneering woman who bravely stepped into the role of lighthouse keeper after the death of her husband. But she did so without the support of the community. This was WWII and Helene was born in Germany. She faced extreme xenophobia but nonetheless stepped up to help protect Canadian ships in a time of war. 

Helene was born in Essen, Germany to Claus and Catharina Botel in 1902. Catharina died when Helene was only six years old. Claus then married Martha Hecht who brought two more children into the Botel family. Before WWI began, Claus and his growing family were lured to Canada by the promise of acres of free farming land. After an arduous journey to Canada in 1913, they settled near Quatsino, BC. Helene had a tough childhood on the Botel homestead where the work was endlessOn June 25, 1921 she married Eli Joseph Leclerc. Joseph, as he was known, was employed at Sisters Islets Lighthouse from 1935-1936. He was then transferred to the Merry Island Lighthouse in October 1936. 

Life at the lighthouse was lonely and laborious, but the Leclerc’s and their two sons made it their home. Sadly, Joseph was afflicted by an unknown illness in about November 1939. Canada had only joined the war effort two months prior, but wartime paranoia had already set in with mass campaigns of anti-German sentiment. In a letter written on his deathbed to A.W.R. Wilby of the Department of Transport, Joseph, begged for the care of his family after he died. He wrote, “This may be the last letter you will get from me and if there is anything you can do to help my little family after I have gone from here, I will greatly appreciate it and God knows they will need help for a while.” Joseph died on December 30, 1939.  

Care of the lighthouse was passed to Helene and her two sons, Albert and Daniel. The complaints from neighbours about the “German woman” running the lighthouse started mere months after Joseph’s death. One particularly vocal neighbour was one Mrs. Olive Hill who wrote multiple letters to the Department of Transport: 

Could you kindly inform me the reason why a German born woman with relatives still in Germany is allowed to have the position as lighthouse keeper at Merry Island? I guess you will tell me her husband was a returned man (and a friend of Stalin). However he is dead now, and a Canadian returned man who is capable should be given the position. 

Mrs. Hill also complained about the state of the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. An inspection proved these claims were exaggerated. However even William Franklin, the first keeper at Merry Island, was roped into the paranoia. He wrote a letter stating, “I never dreamed that our declining years would be so disturbed by a German woman and her offspring. please do something so as we can enjoy peace and quietness with future British subjects…”  

Wilbythe agent in charge of Merry Island, visited the island and interviewed Mrs. Hill. She denied her complaints were due to Mrs. Leclerc’s nationality. The complaints were eventually dismissed by the officials at the Department of Transport. Nevertheless, the social damage was done.  

Helene and her sons left the island in November 1940 on the Estevan and travelled to Victoria. No diary or document outlining the emotional impact of such vitriol the neighbours of Merry Island showed Mrs. Leclerc seems to have survived. The reason for her departure was simply explained away by ill health.  

Helene endured and went on to live a happy life at Hecate Cove. She remarried and  became a beloved member of the community. So much so that a local resident built a trail and named it in her memory. 

Women’s work is often overlooked in history, but Helene’s contribution should not be dismissed. It is more than admirable that she persisted at the Merry Island lighthouse for a year before the bullying got the best of her. Her perseverance and strength are an inspiration.  

Special thanks to Gwen Hansen at the Quatsino Museum & Archives and Donnie Botel for their assistance. 

The photo used for this post is the Merry Island Lighthouse and associated buildings, circa 1966. VMM item number 2003.046.041. 

For more information about the Botel family, see “Claus Carl Daniel Botel: West Coast Patriarch” by Ruth Botel in Raincoast Chronicles 18, pg. 46-55.