Lifelong pride in her heritage and faith give Thelma Chalifoux strength
By: Susan Jones
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012 06:00 am
Thelma Chalifoux, Q&A
What is your favourite book?
What is your favourite movie?
“Seventh Veil, starring Jane Wyman.”
When was your first kiss?
“I was 15. His name was Edward Lyttle and he was on his way to Sicily. He came back, but I never saw him again.”
What is your favourite food?
“Stew and bannock because you can make it go the furthest if there's a crowd.”
What makes you angry?
“It makes me angry to see our people still suffering and still being stereotyped. It makes me angry to hear someone say 'halfbreed' or to say to me, 'You don't look halfbred.' How dare they say that!”
What would you do differently if you could do it again?
“Nothing. I'd do it the same way.”
Retired senator Thelma Chalifoux never stepped away from a fight but she's a generous woman and at every turn she shares the strength she gained from those life battles with her people, the Métis.
Chalifoux, 83, began the St. Albert Michif Cultural Institute which honours her heritage and her people. Provincially she is known for the work she did to gain better housing and land rights for the Métis. Nationally she is known for her work in the Canadian Senate, from 1997 to 2004. Most recently she fought for and succeeded in achieving the Meadowview Centre for Women's Health and Wellness, to help women recovering from substance abuse.
She still works for her people's rights and wellbeing even though her own health is an ongoing battle. She talks about the anger she felt at times when she witnessed poverty among the Métis. That anger is meted out, however, with equal portions of pride in Métis accomplishments. She has an upbeat way about her and for that positive sense of being, Chalifoux credits her faith.
“I have a strong faith and many times, when there was only enough food for one more meal, sure enough something would happen. I feel a strong sense of spirituality, not just Christian spirituality but the faith and knowledge that the Creator will always look after me,” she said.
Chalifoux was born fighting in Calgary's Grace Hospital during a terrible blizzard Feb. 8, 1929.
“I was a child of the Depression, and there were five of us children,” she said, adding that being the second child meant she felt the angst of many middle children and always struggled to get along within the family fold.
Her father Paul Villeneuve was a bronco buster from St. Albert. He met Chalifoux's mother, Helene Ingwersen, a Danish/American, when they were both working in Calgary. Chalifoux, who often butted heads with her mother, chose the Métis side of her heritage.
“My dad always said, 'We are Métis!' My nationality is Métis. My citizenship is Canadian. I am not Aboriginal. I am 100 per cent Métis.”
In 1944, while her father served in the army, Chalifoux, then 15, left school, moved out of home and took two jobs: one in a dry cleaning plant and the second in a bowling alley.
“I didn't tell my mother for two weeks that I quit school. I was not going to go to school in rags,” Chalifoux recalled.
Chalifoux was married twice and both relationships ended unhappily. As a single mother she raised her six children as well as one granddaughter by herself.
“I've been a loner all my life. When I wanted to dance, I taught the kids to dance with me. I wanted to create a circle for security with the children and to this day, my children are my best friends,” she said.
Over the years she's had many different jobs including a designer for Bapco Paints, a position she earned because of an unerring sense of colour. That 1960s-era job led to a weekly spot on television, and her first true fight for women's rights.
“Men doing similar work were getting $650 a month and I got $350. I asked why and was told that men automatically need more money. But I was a single mom,” she said.
The experience strengthened her resolve to stand up for what was right.
“If you see discrimination, if you don't act, you fail,” she said.
Chalifoux became ill during the late 1960s with lupus disease and problems with her pancreas. After a year in the hospital, she packed up her children and moved to Edmonton.
In 1971 Chalifoux went to the Alberta Métis Association offices to renew her Métis News subscription. By the time she left the office she had a new job to form the association's welfare department and also to fight for Métis land rights.
“The Métis had no land and no rights. So we fought,” she said as she described a situation near Lloydminster that still makes her furious.
“Our people were living on the road allowance. The government leased land to ranchers for rodeo stock, but not for our people. We fought for the land,” she said.
The conditions she witnessed among northern Métis families led her to fight so they could get welfare but she also fought to bring industry such as lumber mills to the area to provide job opportunities.
“She was the co-ordinator of all the programs to help native communities and she spoke up to the government. She brought Premier Lougheed and NDP leader Grant Notley and she travelled with them to show them what was happening,” said Joyce Beaver, who worked with Chalifoux at the Friendship Centre in Slave Lake.
On a personal level, none of it was easy. Chalifoux lost her daughter Orleane to cancer during those years but if anything, her grief strengthened her resolve.
She worked with the Department of Northern Development on a local initiatives grant and with the Slave Lake Community Action Group. She became the first Aboriginal woman on commercial radio on CKYL, when she started a program called Smoke Signals from the Peace.
In the Senate, when another senator argued that the Canadian Pension Plan should be abolished, Chalifoux could not keep quiet.
“I had just come from Trout Lake. The senator said that every Canadian could afford RSPs and I heard him and got madder and madder. I stood up and was recognized and told them what I had seen,” she said.
“Her contribution not just to St. Albert, but to the country is huge. It takes guts to take a stand sometimes but Thelma does what she believes has to be done,” said former City of St. Albert councillor Carol Watamaniuk.
Chalifoux has never retired. She still works to get funding for the Michif Institute. She still works with the Centre for Women on Meadowview Drive and still serves as an elder at the Encana Aboriginal Centre at NAIT.
“I'll be retired for thousands of years when I die,” she said cheerfully as she also asked a question of her own that reflects her lifelong ethos of giving to others.
“How do you say no when someone is hurting and you have the ability to give them a hug?” Chalifoux asked, adding, “The good lord said to me, 'You're not finished yet!' so I just keep on ticking.”