A Life's Story
November 23, 2020
Devoted to her girls
'Delightful person' and single mom Ilene Shragge helped create a bilingual public school program and then chose a flexible career to spend more time with her three daughters
By: Kevin Rollason
Whether it was helping create a bilingual Hebrew program at a Winnipeg elementary school or choosing a career, Ilene Shragge’s made sure her three daughters came first.
And that’s why there are probably still people in the city who can toast her achievements using the Tupperware drinking cups she sold them many years ago.
Shragge died of breast cancer May 1 at the age of 67.
"All she ever wanted was more time with her girls," says Carly Erenberg, Shragge’s youngest daughter.
"And she always saw the best of people."
Shragge and her children were living in River Heights when the Public School Act was amended by the provincial government, allowing languages other than English and French to be spoken during class instruction. She became instrumental in helping create a Hebrew bilingual program at Brock Corydon Elementary School for the children in other Jewish families that also lived in the south part of the city.
Today, Brock Corydon and a school in Alberta are the only two public schools in North America where Hebrew bilingual programming is offered. Margaret Park School in West Kildonan also started a bilingual Hebrew program at about the time, but it closed in 2018 after years of declining enrolment as many Jewish families migrated to south Winnipeg as well as enrolling their children in the private Gray Academy for Jewish Education instead.
"She was just aware the program was needed and there was a gap there," Erenberg says.
"My mom and a teacher got together and created the program together. It is a fantastic program. I went there from kindergarten to Grade 6. It was phenomenal."
Paula McPherson, who is now retired, was a longtime teacher in the Hebrew bilingual track at Brock Corydon, beginning in the third year of its existence. She says Shragge and many others were instrumental in getting the program off the ground.
"Hundreds of children have gone through this program," McPherson says.
"The average class size is 25 every year and it has been in operation 30-plus years now. If they had had to go to the north part of the city, they wouldn’t have taken this program."
McPherson taught all three of Shragge’s children.
Because Shragge was a single mother raising three girls, she began selling Tupperware in the early 1980s.
"She needed flexibility to spend as much time with us as possible while still being able to work," Erenberg says.
"She was always interested in sales, and so she became part of the Tupperware world for 22 years."
Bette Brown remembers when Shragge connected with Tupperware. Brown and her husband were among the first distributors in Canada and were responsible for the territory that included Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwest Ontario.
"She was recruited by one of our other managers," Brown says. "She began by doing a couple of parties a week to get some extra money and have flexibility with her hours.
"She was so good at it that we encouraged her to become a manager because you could make more money and get a percentage of sales from people in her unit."
Brown says Shragge was so good at selling the durable plastic housewares that she was rewarded with trips to Hawaii and Mexico, as well as vehicles.
"She was one of our top managers and she did a wonderful job," Brown says. "She was always very creative and had a wonderful way with people. She was not only selling the product, but also selling the opportunity to sell the product, as well.
"She was just a delightful person."
Erenberg says selling Tupperware succeeded in giving her mother the flexibility she needed, including time to be co-chair of her Grade 12 graduation committee.
Shragge was born in Edmonton in 1952 to her parents Phineas and Betty. She was the youngest of three, with an older brother and a sister.
She went to a Jewish school in Edmonton and got interested in world events by watching television news. She was just eight years old when she began writing to world leaders, some of whom wrote her back.
She wrote to Dutch Queen Juliana after her mother, Queen Wilhelmina, died in 1962. She wrote to Pierre Trudeau in 1968, congratulating him for winning the Liberal leadership and becoming prime minister.
She received replies to a letter congratulating Queen Elizabeth on the birth of Prince Andrew and to a sympathy letter sent to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband, U.S. president John F. Kennedy.
When she was 11, she wrote to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, enclosing a Canadian penny. In return, Nehru not only wrote back, but enclosed an Indian coin and a ceramic doll.
"She had offered to exchange dolls with his daughter," Erenberg says.
"He mailed her a wonderful handmade doll.... Later, we all had pen pals with the entire Full House (television show) family. She wanted us to open up to the world."
Shragge moved to Winnipeg when she was 18 to go to nursing school, but left that program.
"She didn’t like causing people pain or putting them in a situation where they may be caused pain," Erenberg says.
Erenberg says one of the things she’ll remember most was how her mother helped her daughters succeed in life.
"I knew she did a lot, but you don’t appreciate what she did until later in life," she says. "She was a single mother, so she had to work and she did everything she could do to provide for us.
"She even helped me study through the night. She just wanted her daughters to be successful and be happy. And she encouraged us to take challenges."
Besides Erenberg, Shragge is survived by her daughter Brenlee, a sister and a sister-in-law, and several nieces and nephews. Her other daughter, Marni Portman, died of cancer in 2015, and her brother, David, died in March.