PHYLLIS MARIE FERGUSON (née Wilson) November 11, 1950 - March 12, 2021 Neebinaquay ('Summer Girl") the Indigenous name given her by artist Carl Ray Heartbroken, we announce the death of Phyllis Ferguson on Friday, March 12 at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital from heart failure. Beloved wife and creative partner of IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson, together for nearly 50 years. Graeme, Phyllis and Toni Myers led the IMAX Space Team in its pioneering achievement in chronicling the space shuttle era. Says Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut, "A rarity for astronauts to trust anyone outside of our own orbit, we believed in the IMAX folks, not only as respected movie-makers but as trusted members of our own space team, integral to the success of our missions - the storytelling that would survive any of us." Phyllis was one-of-a-kind, an alpha female, fiercely loving, loyal, inventive and brave. Her inquiring mind and razor-sharp wit, combined with her resilience and compassion, carried her through 70 years of a magnificent adventure. Born in Quetico, Ontario, she overcame a turbulent and challenging early childhood. As a pre-teenager, she arrived on her own on a Greyhound bus from Edmonton into the home of her grandmother, Phyllis Tenniscoe, in Thunder Bay. She loved her Granny who had 19 children of her own and a warm and welcoming heart. Phyllis, a status member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan (Golden Lake) First Nation, was raised to be self-sufficient amongst a vibrant family, her "cousins" who were really her aunts and uncles. Phyllis's love for her family was a strong thread throughout her life. At Port Arthur Collegiate, Phyllis was a good athlete, excelling at basketball and volleyball, and a keen student. She bonded with people who remained friends for life, one of whom said, "I felt so out of place there and meeting and connecting with you, another Indigenous girl, helped me greatly. You became my best friend." Phyllis always said that the second family who shaped her were Lindsay and the late David Morgan, who invited her in her final year of high school to come and live with them and their children. Phyllis had been thinking about becoming a teacher but at that point her guidance counsellor said, "you're always playing around with video equipment, you should pursue a career you enjoy." She enrolled in Confederation College, which offered a new course in radio and television. She was front and centre as host when the NFB came to Thunder Bay and launched Challenge for Change's weekly slot on the local TV station. Her early career included being an announce operator for CBC Radio in Whitehorse, alone in the studio, doing the whole show by herself, and then working on a community Indigenous newspaper in Ottawa. From assistant production manager on the CBC's Fifth Estate, she became production manager at CTV's W5, a turning point in her career. Next, after freelancing as a sought-after location manager for feature and made-for-TV films, she became immersed in the IMAX world. Her IMAX credits include Hail Columbia! The Dream is Alive, Blue Planet and Destiny in Space. Throughout her career, Phyllis was the "connector," laying the foundation for key relationships, based on straight talk, an unerring feel for what makes people tick and her talent for listening and getting people to talk. That instinct had been evident when she directed her first short documentary - the NFB's Nishnawbe-Aski: The People and the Land, which was made pro bono as a tool for Indigenous community members to make the case for their opposition to clear-cutting in northwestern Ontario. Phyllis's inimitable low-key style was evident in her regular routine of going to the Johnson Space Centre cafeteria every day, finding an empty table and waiting, quietly and confidently, as astronauts and flight directors would come by to share news and opinions. Sometimes an astronaut who had just been named to command a flight would ask her if there was any chance to get an IMAX camera on board. "To me she was the glue that held the IMAX Space Team and the NASA 'extended family' together," says Bill Readdy, former astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Space Flight office. When Graeme and Phyllis retired at Lake of Bays, she became immersed in community life, supporting campaigns and organizations that matched her values and actively raising funds for hospitals. She also found new passions: returning to her love of sports, she took up golf which led to a whole new circle of deep friendships. She loved her black Labs, Naiad and Pixie, playing Scrabble and baking for neighbours. Norway Point became a chosen destination for widespread family and friends, relationships nurtured over many years. Forever remembered by the Tenniscoe family, especially Ruth Martinsen (the late Bent), Sandra Pehkonen (Allan Davis), Margaret Tenniscoe (Gary Ross) and all their families. Lovingly remembered by Graeme Ferguson; his children, Munro Ferguson and Allison Ferguson and their families: grandchildren, Ivan Ferguson, Joyce Ferguson (Pedro Cerna), Samuel Ferguson-Sharp (Melanie) and Lucas Ferguson-Sharp; their mother, Eo Sharp (Charles); great-grandson, Leo Cerna-Ferguson; and her sisters- and brother-in-law, Janet Kroitor (the late Roman), Mary Hooper (Bob) and Bill Ferguson (Millie). Her life is celebrated as well by Lindsay Morgan and family, countless friends across the country and the IMAX family here and around the world. A private cremation, handled by Cardinal Funeral Home in Toronto, has taken place. Her interment, conducted by the Everest Funeral Home, will take place at St. Andrew's Catholic Cemetery in Thunder Bay, where she will rest near her grandmother and relatives. Please consider a donation in her name to the Beendigen Anishinaabe Women's Crisis Home & Family Healing Agency or the South Muskoka Hospital in Bracebridge or the Huntsville Hospital Foundation or the OSPCA. A film on Phyllis's life, produced by Jackson Myers, is being created and will be shared soon. Please buy yourself some tulips and remember Phyllis.
Published in The Globe and Mail from Mar. 27 to Mar. 31, 2021.