Former Slave Lake resident Thelma Chalifoux died last week, at the age of 88. She had been a Canadian Senator, a community organizer, a champion of women’s and Metis rights among many other roles, over a fruitful and eventful life. She was being remembered locally as ‘one of the great women of the community.’
What follows is mostly a reprint of a story that appeared in The Leader about Senator Chalifoux about a year and a half ago.
Back in the early 1970s, Thelma Coulter, as she was known then, came to Slave Lake to work in community development for the provincial Metis Association. One thing she noticed was a lot of women dressing like men.
They did it because they were afraid of being sexually assaulted, explains Thelma’s daughter Deborah Coulter. Thelma’s home became a sort of ‘safe house’ for women during that time.
Deborah, who was a kid then, says, “I recall mom chasing at least three guys away with a frying pan!”
Out of those and other experiences came the idea of a Native Friendship Centre for Slave Lake. Asked how it came about, Chalifoux says, “We just decided and did it.”
It wasn’t nearly that simple, but together with such community-minded people as Mable Courtorielle, Evelyn Norberg and Edith Sinclair, a space was found, cleaned up and the Friendship Centre was born.
Chalifoux also worked with the Company of Young Canadians, a federal project, with several young people from the area, mentoring them as community developers and activists. One of them – Harry Daniels – went on to found the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and launched the court case that resulted in Metis people being declared Indians under the Constitution Act.
Another of Chalifoux’s protégées was Marilyn Buffalo, who later became the first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Asked about her memories of Slave Lake, Thelma says: “We survived, and it was a challenge. We enjoyed it.”
“She did a lot in her life,” says Deborah. “She was a sort of Jill of all trades. We called her the Metis Martha Stewart – she was certified as a flower arranger!”
Chalifoux moved to Edmonton in 1980, and got into other things. Working with the Metis Nation of Alberta, she had a hand in developing an aboriginal seniors centre and a Metis women’s council. She was involved in setting up the Metis Urban Housing Corporation.
“She really changed a lot of lives; helped a lot of young families,” says Deborah. “And that was just in the 1980s!”
Chalifoux also lobbied at a national level.
“A lot of her work was getting Metis included as one of the Aboriginal groups in the Constitution,” says Deborah.
Chalifoux wasn’t alone in that effort, of course, but the results can be seen today in the very common reference to ‘FNMI’ people, in matters that touch on the constitution. The ‘M’ in that acronym standing for ‘Metis,’ alongside First Nations and Inuit.
In the 1990s, Chalifoux established the Michif Institute in St. Albert. It’s a Metis museum of sorts, described as a Michif (that’s the Metis language, a combination of Cree and French) cultural and resource centre. It languished somewhat during her time in the Senate (’97 – ’04), and when she retired from the Senate, she “went back and re-started” it, Deborah says.
As a Senator, Chalifoux was engaged, lobbying on issues that affected Metis people.
“She really woke up those Senators,” says Deborah. “And she paved the way for the other Aboriginal Senators. A lot credit mom and her work.”
It’s an impressive resumé (and not nearly complete, as presented above), perhaps more so when you consider the rocky start of a failed marriage and single motherhood.
“Myself and my three older brothers were put in residential schools and foster homes,” says Deborah. “Mom had to fight for six years to get us back. It’s one reason she became such a strong advocate.” She told her kids, Deborah says, that she had to ‘fight like crazy’ to regain custody.
Born in Calgary in 1929, Chalifoux spent a dozen years in Slave Lake, including most of the 1970s.