Chalifoux remembered as Métis advocate

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A woman is being remembered as a senator and a life-long advocate for Métis and Aboriginal people.

Funeral services will be held Thursday for former senator Thelma Chalifoux, who died Friday in St. Albert at the age of 88. At the time of her death, she was surrounded by her children.

“She was surrounded by her children and her grandchildren from all over Alberta and British Columbia. We played the fiddle music for her that she loved so much,” said daughter Sharon Morin.

On a national level, Chalifoux is remembered as a Canadian Senator, who served from 1997 until 2004. Provincially she is remembered as a life-long advocate for Métis and Aboriginal people. For many decades she worked on land-rights claims for the Métis and she was honoured for her work with two awards: the National Aboriginal Achievement Award and the Métis National Council Lifetime Achievement Award. In St. Albert, Thelma Chalifoux is remembered for establishing the Michif Cultural and Resource Institute, which honours her people, the Métis.

“Thelma Chalifoux was an advocate for the Michif Institute, for the preservation of the Michif language and for the Métis world,” said Mayor Nolan Crouse. He said he remembers that some years ago Chalifoux approached city council about establishing a recovery centre for Aboriginal women who had been abused or who were struggling with drug or alcohol abuse.

“She made that happen. She was pretty strong. And you didn’t want to cross her because she had a wisdom and presence about her,” Crouse said.

Chalifoux was born Feb. 8, 1929 in Calgary. At age 16 she quit school to get a job in a dry-cleaning store. She was married twice and had six children. For the most part she raised those children on her own as a single mother. Life was often a struggle for her as she fought against poverty and also against what she perceived to be injustices because she was both a single woman, and a Métis.

“She always had a cause. She always had a purpose. It was never about her. It was about helping others,” Morin said.

Morin recalled that in the late 1960s her mother was the first Indigenous woman on the radio. Thelma Chalifoux established a detox centre in Slave Lake and worked with the Company of Young Canadians.

“She helped at the Salvation Army and she visited prisons,” Morin said, adding, “I think she helped others so much because it was very real for her. There were really hard times for us and she could understand other people’s struggles.”

Chalifoux even shared the incredible honour of being named to the Canadian Senate, recalled former St. Albert city councillor Carol Watamaniuk, who worked with Chalifoux on different heritage committees.

“When parliament opened, Thelma invited me to attend with her. It was a special moment I shared with her. And yet, we laughed too because Thelma was straightforward. It was pouring that day and I noticed Thelma’s shoes were muddy as we went to go into the Parliament Buildings. I pointed it out to her and she said, ‘Well of course they are muddy! It’s raining!’ and in we went.”

A Traditional Métis Wake will be held Wednesday, Sept. 27, from 6 p.m. to midnight at the Connelly-McKinley Funeral Home in St. Albert.

The funeral for Thelma Chalifoux will be held Thursday, Sept. 28 at 11 a.m. at Holy Family Parish.

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Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.