Nellie Carlson, a Cree woman who lost her Indigenous status when she married a Métis man, died Thursday at the age of 93.
“It’s a huge loss,” Nellie’s daughter Myrna Sirett said.
“She was a little dynamite with a real sense of humour, a ready wit, fun to be around but when she said something, she really meant it.
“That was a huge reason why she was really heard in the parliament and changes were made,” Sirett said. “It’s amazing. She said, ‘It’ll happen… just watch me.'”
Nellie was forced to attend a residential school in the Edmonton area when she was just six years old. She left when she was 16 with a Grade 8 education.
Just 18 days after Nellie Makokis married Elmer Carlson, the Canadian government told her she had lost her status.
She fought that decision for 18 years, created the advocacy group Indian Rights for Indian Women (IRIW), and eventually was able to reclaim her treaty rights and help thousands of other Indigenous Canadians in similar situations.
Nellie and Elmer had 11 children together and were married for 73 years when she died.
“It’s been pretty hard,” he said Friday, adding that he and his son were the last people to visit Nellie on Thursday, shortly before she passed away.
Elmer said what he’ll miss most is simply his late wife’s company.
Nellie was declining in health the last few years, suffering from dementia, her family said. But she was able to recognize her children and husband and share childhood memories and laughs, Sirett said Friday. In addition to her humour, Sirett will remember her mother’s strength.
“She gave a real example to us about perseverance, and strength and standing up for what you know is right.”
“She left a legacy of self-sacrifice and dedication to the cause of regaining Native status for women who lost theirs, as she did, by marrying a non-Native man, challenging and succeeding to change the Indian Act Bill C-31,” Sirett explained in a post on Facebook. “She was awarded with the Persons Award in 1988, as well as a street and a school named after her. She did all this with a Grade 8 education at a residential school.”
“My mom meant everything to me because she was the one who led us all on this path of life,” added Ruth Carlson, Nellie and Elmer’s eldest child. “She led by example. Since I was young, I followed her footsteps.”
The Edmonton elementary school named after Carlson shared the news on its Facebook page, writing: “Mrs. Carlson was instrumental in regaining Aboriginal rights and status to ensure equality for all Aboriginal women.
“Mrs. Carlson embodied what it meant to strive for excellence, equality and community.
“We are proud to have Nellie Carlson as our namesake, and we are committed to maintaining her legacy of excellence. Being part of the Nellie Carlson Community as a staff, student or parent is an honour that will live on forever.”
Principal Henry Madsen met Carlson a number of times and was inspired by her passion for education, community and equity.
“Nellie Carlson stood up for the rights of Aboriginal women. She stood up for equity, for equality, for human rights. She stood up for the rights of women in general,” he said.
“She was also really committed to the whole idea of education and that encapsulated exactly what we’re about at Nellie Carlson School — a school that focuses on equity, community and makes sure the students learn at the highest level possible.”
Madsen said the students loved having Carlson and her family visit. He has photos of crowds of children surrounding Carlson while attending school assemblies and the grand opening of the school in 2016.
“She left a remarkable legacy and one we’re very proud of.
“That legacy lives on.”
Friends and loved ones have described her as determined, fiery, not afraid to stand up and be heard.
Carlson received a Governor-General’s award, inspired a museum exhibit about IRIW at the Royal Alberta Museum and had an Edmonton school named after her.