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Politics Thelma Chalifoux was the first Métis woman to serve in Canada’s Senate

After Thelma Chalifoux retired from the senate in 2004, she founded the Michif Cultural and Métis Resource Institute to preserve, protect and promote the Métis culture in northern Alberta.

NAIT

Thelma Chalifoux, who fought to reunite her family after losing her children during the Sixties Scoop, and later became the first Métis woman to serve in Canada's Senate, died on Sept. 22 at a critical care centre in St. Albert, Alta. She was 88.

Throughout her life, Ms. Chalifoux was a tireless advocate for social justice and women's rights, particularly for indigenous people.

Before her appointment to serve on Parliament Hill, she accomplished a series of firsts, becoming the first female construction estimator in Alberta, the first indigenous woman to serve in the University of Alberta's senate and the first Métis woman to win an Aboriginal Achievement Award, in 1994.

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"We were the Métis and we worked hard," Ms. Chalifoux said in a 2013 video by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), where she was a Métis elder-in-residence. "I was raised to be strong and independent.

"I would walk into a meeting and they would say, 'Here comes Thelma and her women's lip' and I would say, 'Yes, you better believe it and you better listen to it, because if we don't do that we'll be left behind.'"

She developed her strong – and sometimes polarizing – voice early in life.

Thelma Julia Chalifoux was born during a blizzard to a Métis couple, Paul and Helene Villeneuve, on Feb. 8, 1929, in Calgary. She grew up there during the Great Depression, setting the stage for a lifetime of hard work.

"A penny saved is a penny earned; you don't throw stuff away, you fix it," her daughter Debbie Coulter said of her mother's values.

Ms. Chalifoux was a teenager during the Second World War, volunteering to help in soup kitchens and anywhere else she could.

She met her husband, Robert Coulter, at the age of 18.

"They were married too young. He went off to war in Korea after that," Ms. Coulter said. "She had me when he was in Korea."

When her husband returned from the war, he was probably suffering from what's now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He came back fully an alcoholic, and violent," Ms. Coulter said. "[Ms. Chalifoux] put up with that for about a year and a half – as long as she could – but, being a strong Métis woman, there was no way she was going to allow that kind of a situation to continue, so she left him."

Ms. Chalifoux and her children moved in with her parents, although they weren't particularly supportive – a common reaction in those days.

In 1958, Ms. Coulter said, her mother went to social services for help and "they scooped us."

The Sixties Scoop was the practice of taking aboriginal children away from their families to put them in foster care or place them for adoption with other families.

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All four of Ms. Chalifoux's children were shipped off to Lacombe Home, just outside Calgary. They were later transferred to numerous foster homes.

"She had to fight to get us back," said Ms. Coulter, noting that her mother gave birth to her little sister, Orleane, finished her high school education and worked two jobs as a waitress during that period.

As a single mother, she had great difficulty getting her four eldest children back.

"According to society's rules at the time, she was the bad guy," Ms. Coulter said. "She had a lot of resistance. She had challenges she really had to overcome."

By 1965, Ms. Chalifoux had her children back with her.

She gave birth to three more, Sharon, Julie and Paul – although Julie was placed with an adoptive family and out of contact with her birth family for about 40 years.

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Despite the challenges she faced, Ms. Chalifoux continued to go to school, attending community college in Lethbridge to get a social sciences degree. Her two oldest sons, Bob and Scott, went to the school at the same time.

"We had to carpool," said Bob Coulter, explaining they lived outside of the southern Alberta city and took several classes together. "We had really good debates and good discussions about social consciences.

"Of course, that would carry on during our commute home and at the dinner table."

Mr. Coulter said his mother had a strong sense of social justice.

In the late 1960s, Ms. Chalifoux moved north to Edmonton to look for work.

"She went into the Métis Association of Alberta to get her card updated and she ended up getting a job," said her daughter Debbie. "They recognized her as a go-getter."

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She often dealt with women's rights issues – a theme throughout her career. Having faced injustice herself, she dedicated her life to helping others deal with discrimination.

"She was a naturally forceful, very opinionated, very vocal woman," Ms. Coulter said.

It helped her break barriers both for herself and for other women.

"Thelma was a champion for Métis rights and a valued member of the Métis community," said the Métis Nation of Alberta in a statement after her death. "She leaves behind a legacy of activism and culture."

She spent several decades in Alberta working for women's rights through organizations such as the Métis Women's Council.

In Slave Lake, she started the Native Friendship Centre in the 1970s and ran the first safe house for victims of domestic violence.

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"When she first moved to Slave Lake, she noticed that the women were dressing very masculine," Ms. Coulter said. "It was because of all of the oil-field workers – there were a high number of violent incidents going on.

"The guys would come over there and she would chase them away with a frying pan to get the hell out of there," she added.

Ms. Chalifoux also ran a food bank, storing extra food in her basement for anyone who was fleeing from violence.

By the early 1980s, she was involved in constitutional talks with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau as part of a Métis delegation that went to Ottawa.

"They joined up and created a Métis Nation," said Ms. Coulter, noting that they didn't have a seat at the table and did all their negotiations in the backrooms.

Ms. Chalifoux ended up making a bunch of little Métis flags that they could all wave.

The delegation helped to get aboriginal nations – Inuit, First Nations and Métis – recognized as separate and distinct.

"She was just thrilled," Ms. Coulter said.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who had also been involved in the constitutional talks, appointed Ms. Chalifoux a senator on Nov. 26, 1997.

Ms. Chalifoux said in the 2013 video that he phoned her up and said, "Madame Chalifoux, we need you in the Senate. We need your voice."

Her son Bob was the only one with her when she took Mr. Chrétien's call.

"The way they talked back and forth, it was a very friendly conversation," he recalled. "There was a bit of hilarity as well. When he asked her if she spoke French, she answered in Cree."

Ms. Chalifoux was a strong advocate for aboriginal rights during her time in the Senate.

"She could go into a board room and fight it out, be fierce and then they'd all go for lunch," Ms. Coulter said, noting they would be laughing and telling stories as they ate.

Her sense of humour was infectious.

One day during a filibuster (a legislative delaying tactic), the bells in the Senate were ringing and Ms. Chalifoux simply started singing.

"She had all these old senators singing a song while the filibuster was on," her daughter recalled with a laugh. "She had a great sense of humour. She would laugh easily and laugh loudly."

Ms. Chalifoux retired from the Senate in February, 2004, at the mandatory retirement age of 75 and received an honorary doctorate at the University of Toronto that same year for her advocacy work.

After her retirement, she continued as a voice for Métis people, founding the Michif Cultural and Métis Resource Institute (now Michif Cultural Connections) in St. Albert, with a mission to preserve, protect and promote the Métis culture in northern Alberta.

She also accepted an appointment as elder-in-residence at NAIT.

"I look at our students that come in when they're adults," Ms. Chalifoux said in the NAIT video. "The pride in themselves is absolutely amazing. It gives you a real warm feeling that maybe just a little bit about what I said helped them along the way."

Ms. Coulter said her mother's legacy won't soon be forgotten.

"The ripple effects of her existence will be felt for years to come," she said.

Her death last month came after four years of deteriorating health related to dementia, according to her family.

She leaves seven of her eight children, several others who "might as well be her children," dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren.

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