Marie-Anne Daywalker-Pelletier, who led Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan for almost 40 years making her the longest serving elected chief in Canada, retired last week.
First elected in 1981, Daywalker-Pelletier is still surprised by the length of time she spent in office.
"My thoughts at that time were maybe three or four years, that was kind of my target," she said.
"I never thought I'd be there for 40 years. I have seen generations grow up."
Daywalker-Pelletier was 26 when she was first elected chief of her community of about 700 people, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina.
She had been working in language and culture with the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, and began to volunteer at her band office. Later she wrote funding proposals for the band.
Her passion for her work got her recognized and nominated for chief, a position not often filled by women at that time.
"Starting with very little at the beginning and moving the community forward in terms of culture — working together, unity is what motivated me each term."
The oldest of her two children was two when she began; she now has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Daywalker-Pelletier said she plans on spending time with family and giving some attention to projects put on the back burner.
"I am telling everybody I am going to sleep for two months," laughed Daywalker-Pelletier.
"I am going to take some time to reflect... Actually I have been trying to write my book and now I will be able to do it."
During the pandemic, Daywalker-Pelletier has taken on the role of mentoring her great grandchildren through home-learning and plans to keep that as her daily focus for now.
Order of Canada
Balancing family and work was never easy for Daywalker-Pelletier, but she said her family helped to keep life on track. For her, the role of family became a driving force behind many of her decisions.
She was chair of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (now the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations) in 2005, and hosted a national health conference for Indigenous leaders across Canada in 2001.
She became a member of the Order of Canada in 2018. The Order of Canada, Canada's highest honour, acknowledges individuals throughout the country who go above and beyond to help their communities.
"That was such a big surprise to me because I'm not one to work toward awards, that isn't me. I am not even sure who nominated me," she said.
She was unaware of her nomination until she was contacted from Ottawa.
"They told me I was selected for the Order of Canada but I couldn't say anything to my family, it was a secret at the time," she said.
"I was like, 'you have to be kidding me.' I wasn't able to tell my children or immediate circle until I received an official letter… That letter took like six weeks to get to me."
In her early years Daywalker-Pelletier recalls there being only two female chiefs in Saskatchewan; there are currently 18.
"Through generation and generation I was there to see the positive progression, seeing the healing that has to take place, that is how I measure my success," she said.
Children in care her priority
On Oct. 20, Daywalker-Pelletier handed over the chief's headdress to the new chief Richard Stonechild, 47.
Stonechild served on council with Daywalker-Pelletier for 17 years and said he couldn't have asked for a better teacher.
"She sets the bar for just about everybody else," said Stonechild.
"The amount of love and caring she has for the people and her dedication and commitment to children is something I look up to, especially our children in care."
Being a survivor of the residential school system, Daywalker-Pelletier knows firsthand the effects it had on children. She focused on reuniting Indigenous children in care with their parents.
"I have witnessed the treatment of children in care and some are not treated well," she said.
She credits constant negotiations with government for gaining control over issues regarding child and family services. The community's work in prevention has led to a zero record of child apprehensions for the past two years.
The Daywalker Home Fire Family Centre, which is set to open later this year, was the result of a 10-year plan that would see Okanese First Nation able to define and write their own legislation in regards to child and family services.
The family centre will house and accommodate the reintegration of children and families. The plan is to have extended care beyond a fixed timeline.
"We want to offer supports like life skills, cultural healing, mental health not only for the children and parents, but for those that foster the children as well," said Daywalker-Pelletier.
Funding for the centre came from federal government as well as Okanese First Nation prevention and protection money given to help with child safety.
"She has done a lot of good, bringing back all the kids that are in foster care, so that they don't lose their culture and identity," said Elder Margaret Keewatin.
Keewatin recalls the care and help Daywalker-Pelletier gave her late husband in his last days.
"She is a caring person and now the new chief and council will have to follow in her footsteps."