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The Late Honourable Thelma J. Chalifoux

1st Session, 42nd Parliament, Volume 150, Issue 146

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, I rise today to pay tribute to the late Senator Thelma Chalifoux, who passed away at the age of 88 last week.

As many senators know, she was the first indigenous female senator appointed to the upper chamber in 1997. She was also the first indigenous female senator to chair the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Under her leadership, the committee produced a groundbreaking study on urban Aboriginal youth in 2003. Senator Chalifoux was also a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights and was a member when the committee released the first parliamentary report on matrimonial real property on reserve.

Even before she arrived here in the Senate, Thelma was a trail-blazing indigenous leader. From the time Senator Chalifoux was young, she cared for others, including elders in her family. After leaving an abusive marriage in the 1950s, she went back to school to study sociology at the Lethbridge Community College and construction estimating at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology while working to support her seven children. From the late 1960s, Thelma Chalifoux worked extensively with rural and Aboriginal organizations and in other forums where she contributed to the betterment of the Metis and supported and initiated programs for all indigenous peoples.

Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein challenged her appointment as an unelected senator from Alberta. Thelma fired back with this response: She said she wouldn’t have had a chance to win an election because she was a woman, a Metis, and she didn’t have the money to run an election campaign.

In my opinion, this was an excellent response — one that shattered the illusion of equal opportunity when it comes to who gets elected.

Thelma Chalifoux served as a land claims negotiator, was a founder of the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre, and was instrumental in developing the Métis Association of Alberta land and welfare departments. She worked tirelessly in areas that included Aboriginal communications, housing, education, suicide prevention, prisons, battered women, cross-cultural training in government departments and alcoholism.

After her retirement from the Senate in 2004, Thelma didn’t slow down. She helped to found the Michif Cultural Institute, a museum and resource centre in St. Albert aimed at preserving and promoting regional Metis culture.

I attended her funeral last week to pay my respects and to offer my condolences to her family. She had seven children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A traditional wake was held on Wednesday night. As if in response to this, the Northern Lights were dancing in the sky. Thelma’s son Robert Coulter said, “That’s just like mom. She had to have her own special light show.”

Rest in peace, Honourable Thelma Chalifoux; it’s an honour to follow in your footsteps.

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