Edmonton Public names school after Thelma Chalifoux

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Hundreds of Edmonton students will soon attend schools named after two prominent St. Albert Métis women.

Edmonton Public Schools revealed the names of three new schools Tuesday that are set to open in the next few years. Two of the schools would be named after renowned Métis author Dr. Anne Anderson, who was born just east of St. Albert, and former senator Thelma Chalifoux. The third was named after Edmonton Arabic language advocate Soraya Hafez.

Board chair Michelle Draper said that the board picked these three from among the roughly 600 nominees suggested by city residents last December.

“A school name is the highest honour a board of trustees can give an individual,” she said, and one that will become part of the fabric of a community. These three women reflect Edmonton’s diverse roots and embody the importance of hard work, generosity, cultural preservation, and education.

Musée Héritage Museum programs manager Sharon Morin was one of the many relatives of Chalifoux and Anderson at Tuesday’s board meeting to celebrate the announcement.

Morin said she was “floored and over the moon” when she learned a month ago that the board planned to name a school after her mother, Chalifoux.

“I kept thinking about how tickled she’d be at the whole thing,” she said, as she was a strong advocate for education.

Morin said she was pleasantly surprised to hear the board name a school after Anderson, as Anderson was a close friend of the Chalifoux family.

“We as kids called her ‘Auntie Anne.’”

Cultural champions

Chalifoux (1929-2017) was the first Métis woman to serve in Canada’s Senate and a tireless advocate for women and Indigenous peoples. She also founded and for many years ran the Michif Cultural Institute (now Michif Cultural Connections) in St. Albert.

Chalifoux believed that knowing your roots made you stronger, and encouraged people to learn about their Indigenous history, Morin said. She taught her kids to stand up and think for themselves, and emphasized the value of hard work and community contribution.

“I always say I got my PhD at the University of Thelma,” Morin said.

Chalifoux lobbied to get Cree lessons into Slave Lake schools in the 1970s, said Morin, who recalls being in one of the first classes to learn O Canada in Cree. She later helped Northern Alberta Institute of Technology develop an online course on Aboriginal awareness and served as its Métis elder-in-residence. She also did a series of interviews with Sir George Simpson students on local Métis history.

Anderson (1906-1997) was born on a riverlot just east of St. Albert and for many years lived on Mission Hill, said her nephew Gary Gairdner. Her father, William Joseph Gairdner, was the first school principal in St. Albert and once lived in Juneau House, now home to Michif Cultural Connections.

“She was a real stickler for education,” Gairdner said, particularly among Indigenous youth.

“She taught us and all of our family to be proud of our heritage.”

Anderson was instrumental in preserving the Cree language in Alberta, Morin said. Starting in her 60s, Anderson wrote about 90 books on Cree language and Métis history, including a 38,000-word English-Cree dictionary. She taught Cree at Grant MacEwan College for many years and convinced Edmonton Public to start teaching it in its schools. She was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1991 and has a park named after her in Edmonton.

Thelma Chalifoux School will be a junior high in Larkspur Park in southeast Edmonton. In an interview, Draper said it would likely have garage-door-style walls, solar panels, and plenty of light, and would open in September 2020. Construction is set to start this June.

Dr. Anne Anderson School will be a high school in the Heritage Valley region of south Edmonton and does not yet have an opening date, Edmonton Public Schools reports.

Morin and Gairdner said they hoped these schools would focus on Indigenous culture and history.

Visit epsb.ca/schools/newschoolsandmodernizations for details on the new schools.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.