Thelma Chalifoux, Canada’s first Indigenous woman senator, is being remembered as a trailblazer, an elder, and a blessing to the Catholic Church.
“She made a lot of difference in a lot of people’s lives, not just as a senator, but before she became a senator,” said Chalifoux’s daughter, Debbie Coulter. “She was a history maker and a trailblazer. She was a woman ahead of her time.”
“When she saw a need, she didn’t worry about whether it was possible or if it’s been done before. She just went ahead and made it happen,” said Robert Coulter, Chalifoux’s eldest son.
Chalifoux, a lifelong activist for the Métis in Canada, died on Sept. 22, surrounded by family and friends at Citadel Care Centre in St. Albert, after months of frail health. She was 88.
“She was a strong advocate for Métis people and womens’ rights,” said Gary Gagnon, coordinator of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton’s Office of Aboriginal Relations.
Chalifoux founded the Michif Cultural Connections, a Métis museum in St. Albert, and she was the first Métis woman to receive the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now called the Indspire Award) in 1994, and the first woman Métis on the University of Alberta senate.
“One of the things an elder possesses is a real, true kindness and love for people. And she had that,” said Gagnon, who considered Chalifoux a mentor.
“She had knowledge but she also added that spiritual essence that’s needed in decision making. She was big on prayer too. I know in my heart I’ll miss her, and it’s going to be a big hole in the Métis community for a while because of her advocacy.”
Chalifoux also had deep Catholic roots in her home community of St. Albert. She worked as an activist for reconciliation between the Church and residential school survivors, and helped negotiate land transfers from the Church back to the local Métis community.
A traditional Métis wake was scheduled for Sept. 27, from 6 p.m. to midnight, at the Connelly-McKinley St. Albert Funeral Home. The funeral Mass was set for Sept. 28, at 11 a.m. at Holy Family Catholic Parish in St. Albert, with a reception to follow.
Born in Calgary in 1929, Chalifoux grew up in a small Métis community, where she learned to be proud of her culture.
“We were the Métis and we worked hard, and I was raised to be strong and independent,” Chalifoux said in a video produced by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
A single mother, Chalifoux raised eight kids while completing correspondence courses, graduating from Lethbridge Community College, and working as a waitress and an interior designer.
She moved to the Edmonton area in her late 30s to receive medical treatment for a severe bout of pancreatitis. The near-death experience gave Chalifoux “a sense of her own mortality” and inspired her to become more active in community development work, Coulter said.
When the family moved to Slave Lake in the 1970s, Chalifoux’s home became the community’s only safe house for women fleeing violence. Amid an oil and gas boom, Chalifoux had noticed many of the women in Slave Lake were dressing in men’s clothing.
“Mom was like, ‘What the heck?’ but apparently, they were doing that as a form of protection because there were a high number of rape victims,” said Coulter. “When a guy would come over and try to get in the house, Mom would just stare them down.”
Chalifoux helped found the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, promoted the Cree language in northern Alberta and helped set up programs for schools facing high aboriginal student drop-out rates.
She also worked with other activists ensure the Métis were recognized as a separate and distinct people in the Constitution Act of 1982.
In 1997, Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed Chalifoux to the Senate, where she sponsored the Louis Riel Act to exonerate the Métis political leader and to recognize his role in Confederation. She retired from the Senate in 2004.
As a person, Chalifoux was kind but tough.
“You wouldn’t want to get on her bad side,” said Debbie Coulter. “If she had something to say, she would tell you and she wouldn’t mince words, so you always knew where you stood with her.
“She was representing the Métis politically and she had a very strong voice.”
Away from public life, Chalifoux was a devoted mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
“We called her the Métis Martha Stewart because she liked to make things herself,” Coulter said. “She was a really good cook, seamstress, flower arranger, she just did all kinds of stuff.”
Robert Coulter remembers his mother marching him and his siblings around the breakfast table and dancing to records in their living room.
“As an adult, she was just my best friend and I could talk about any issues and challenges,” he said. “She made us feel special and she was a magician with time.”