7 Life Lessons From My Kokum — Who Was Also The First Indigenous Woman In Canada's Senate

I hope these reach all of the women out there looking for motivation — and a little laugh when the struggle gets too heavy.
"When I think about the matriarchs who have guided me over the years, the first one who comes to mind is my kokum (the Cree word for 'grandmother')."
"When I think about the matriarchs who have guided me over the years, the first one who comes to mind is my kokum (the Cree word for 'grandmother')."
Photo: Nai

As I walked through Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, I wondered, “How did I get here?”

I was there to serve as a panelist at the Métis Nation’s “Youth Summit on Climate Change,” which was a huge honor. I couldn’t help but reflect on the path that led me to where I am now, in a position that most would consider extremely prestigious. Growing up as a young Indigenous girl with very humble beginnings and a gang-affiliated father, I know that this path could have gone in another direction.

Given the opportunity, my mother would tell you stories of a fierce little girl who climbed tall trees until the tips swayed in the wind. I was ambitious and focused, yes, but it was the women around me who fostered those ideals within me. And when I think about the matriarchs who have guided me over the years, the first one who comes to mind is my kokum (the Cree word for “grandmother”) — or G Ma, as we called her.

When I walked along Ottawa’s canals and stared up at the Parliament Building, I felt her presence. How could I not? She was one of the fiercest advocates for the Métis people. Thelma Chalifoux was the first Indigenous woman appointed to the Senate in Canada. She was also a Mètis woman whose contributions to the country were so enormous that the University of Alberta named a building after her, Canada commemorated her with a stamp, and Edmonton, Alberta, named a school after her.

She was also just my kokum: a woman whose voice, humor, severity, wisdom, and advice forever live inside of me. It’s been seven years since you passed on to the spirit world, G Ma. In honor of her, here are seven lessons that she handed down to me and permeate my bones to this day. I hope they reach all of the women out there looking for motivation — and a little laugh when the struggle gets too heavy.

Community is everything — so don’t just be ‘tits on a log.’

Sometimes, G Ma and I would be eating bannock and sipping tea at the dining table when she would say, “That Susan is as useless as tits on a log!” And we would erupt into laughter.

The phrase implies that a person or people are doing nothing to contribute to a household or community. She taught me early on that when you are a guest in someone’s home — or a member of a family unit — you earn your keep and help with whatever they need.

G Ma spent her whole life devoted to activism in Indigenous organizations around fair housing, education, suicide prevention, prisons and abused women. She also helped people battle alcoholism and addiction, which plagues our communities. For better or worse, G Ma was a woman who never rested. And she changed so many lives because of her tenacity.

You can catch more flies with honey (and a plan).

I was a headstrong and determined child — which makes sense, as I was raised by defiant, determined women. If I had an idea in mind, I needed to make it happen. At first, my pleas involved whining. But G Ma explained to me that a strong argument is far more powerful than an emotional appeal. “Instead of whining, come up with three logical reasons for why you should get what you want,” she told me.

Ten-year-old me quickly learned how to craft arguments as if our household were a court of law and I were a seasoned litigator. As a grown woman now, having defied all odds stacked against me, I’m proud that this skill was instilled in me early on. I rarely accept a no when it comes to my career aspirations.

‘Never get into a piss fight with a skunk.’

My G Ma taught me to choose my battles and learn how to fight fairly and effectively. Most importantly, I was taught not to stoop to another person’s level when they throw a low blow. I remember once, in middle school, a boy in my class made a cruel remark about my incarcerated father. It pierced my solar plexus the way that only certain words can. My first reaction was to try to hurt him physically. But instead, I ripped his glasses off his face and stomped on them.

I then promptly marched myself to the principal’s office to turn myself in, eyes stinging from tears. Sitting down with G Ma after this happened and telling her about it, she shook her head: “Never get into a piss fight with a skunk.” And as an adult, I know she was right. Some people just play dirty, and it’s not worth my energy to engage.

Give yourself time to grieve — and then tap into your innate resilience.

In the 23 years of having my kokum as my role model before she passed, I don’t recall seeing her shed a single tear. After she left her abusive husband in the ’50s, she then had her children taken away from her through the Sixties Scoop. She spent seven years getting all her children back.

Of course, I don’t recommend tamping down grief and keeping sadness hidden, but I know that her message to me was to not let grief paralyze you for too long. You pick yourself up, and you get on with the mission. Though I allow myself to feel and process, she truly modeled resilience for me — and taught me that our trauma does not define any of us.

Always look for the good in people.

On my 30th birthday, a friend told me how the thing she loves the most about me is that I accept people, without judgment, for who they are in all their fullness and complexity. It was a very generous compliment, and all props go to my G Ma. She taught me that the most valuable thing we can do for another person is to process their flaws with compassion.

What if the mistakes we make were not maligned, but instead seen as opportunities for growth? You were not perfect, G Ma, and there were moments when your sternness made me feel small. But still, your goodness will always be the thing that shines.

A cast-iron pan does more than make bannock.

G Ma created a safe haven in her basement where she kept canned goods, clothing, hygiene supplies and basic materials to help women get back on their feet after fleeing abusive marriages. My Aunty Debbie used to always tell the stories of watching her chase men away from her home with cast-iron frying pans. It was her first and only line of defense, and it worked.

Whenever I think of cast-iron frying pans, I think about how my kokum provided for the women in her community in more ways than one. I hope to be as supportive to any woman who needs an advocate.

You have a voice. Be sure to use it, even when it’s not welcome.

After I read a eulogy at my G Ma’s funeral, one of her friends from the Senate came up to me and shared a story about her. The friend remembered a meeting where a man in the House of Commons started talking over G Ma. She stood up, pounded her fists on the table and said, “You will listen to what I have to say!” The room fell silent, all eyes on her, as the story goes. One of the men there said, “By all means, Sen. Chalifoux, the floor is yours.”

You left big shoes to fill, G Ma, and sometimes I hear you when I tap on my keyboard and words emerge on the page. And I can only hope that your voice lives on through me.

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