Thelma Chalifoux, a high-profile member of Alberta’s Metis and Indigenous community and once a Canadian senator, died in St. Albert, Alta. on Friday with friends and family at her bedside. She was 88 years old.
“It was a very touching, private moment as we watched our dear mother, grandmother and matriarch go back to her heavenly home,” her eldest son, Robert Coulter, told Global News on Sunday. “My mother was a wonderful, caring trailblazer and an example to everyone she met.”
In 1997, Chalifoux became the first Metis and Indigenous woman to be appointed to the Senate. She moved back to Alberta in 2004 upon retiring from that position. Throughout her life, Chalifoux was active in helping to get facilities and programs like friendship centres up and running for Indigenous Canadians. Her work also saw her take a keen interest in issues to do with housing, education, suicide, incarceration, domestic abuse, cross-cultural training in government departments and alcoholism.
“When she saw a need, she did everything she could to either correct the situation, deal with it or change hearts and minds that needed to be changed so that people would be better off for it,” Coulter said. “(She had a) real sense of social justice and responsibility.”
As an example, Coulter recalled a story where Chalifoux helped to arrange for a Metis woman living in a remote area near Slave Lake to get a stove to make her life easier.
“She just said, ‘I can’t believe people live in the modern day and they have nothing.'”
Chalifoux was one of the founders of the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre and was seen by many as playing a key role in getting the Cree language taught in northern schools. Chalifoux was also the first Metis woman to serve on the Senate of the University of Alberta.
Recently, she helped to found the Michif Cultural Institute, a museum and resource centre in St. Albert aimed at preserving and promoting regional Metis culture.
In the 1950s, Chalifoux studied sociology at the Lethbridge Community College and later also studied construction estimating at the the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She was also raising seven children as a single mother at the time.
Coulter said his mother told him her father told her she would be strong when she was young because of the circumstances she was born into.
“She used to tell the story of being born in a blizzard and her dad used to say that that was a real sign of things to come,” Coulter recalled with fondness.
Chalifoux was born in Calgary on Feb. 8, 1929.
Coulter said Chalifoux’s health had been failing and she recently took a turn for the worse. He said the family is still finalizing funeral arrangements.