ST. ALBERT, Alta. – Metis activist and retired senator Thelma Chalifoux has died.
Chalifoux’s daughter, Debbie Coulter, says her mother passed away Friday evening at a care home in St. Albert, near Edmonton, and had been in declining health for some years. She was 88.
Chalifoux was appointed to the upper chamber in 1997 and served until she retired at age 75 in 2004.
Chalifoux was born in Calgary in 1929 and noted when she was named to the Senate that she raised seven children, so she was used to hard work.
She began working in community development when she was offered a job by the Metis Association of Alberta, and she later served as chairwoman of the Metis National Council Senate and vice-president of the Aboriginal Women’s Business Development Corporation.
She was also the first Metis woman on the Senate of the University of Alberta.
“We spent the last couple of days in her room surrounding her with love, music and stories,” Coulter said Sunday, noting that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were present during that time.
“We like to think that she could still hear us.”
In her job with Alberta’s Metis Association, Chalifoux was sent from the cities of south and central Alberta to the northern bush country of Slave Lake, where she was to spend the next 12 years.
Working with the Company of Young Canadians, a government agency that brought young workers in to help people in poor communities organize to improve their lot, she began fighting for better conditions for her people, especially better housing.
She modelled her work on the writings of Saul Alinsky, who wrote about community development in black neighbourhoods in American cities.
“When you develop communities, it’s like working in the trenches. You train the people to become self-sufficient,” Chalifoux told The Canadian Press in an interview in 1997.
Along the way, she became one of the first Indigenous women to broadcast on private radio, Peace River’s CKYL.
She received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1994.
During her time as senator she appointed a task force to consult with Edmonton’s Indigenous community about violent Indigenous youth gangs, and argued for better education and partnerships between the community, police and other Canadians.
She also challenged a claim by then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein that she should have been elected to the post, noting she could have won an election.
Chalifoux said she wouldn’t have a chance because she was a woman, Metis and didn’t have the finances for a campaign.
After leaving the Senate, Coulter said her mother founded an organization to preserve and protect the Metis history in northern Alberta, called the Michif Institute. Coulter and her sister took it over when their mother became ill, and a version of it continues today.
“There’s a saying that nobody wants on their grave that they wish they would have worked more. We were laughing about that the other day and we thought, well, except for my mother. She might have said that,” Coulter said.