Longest serving chief in Canada, Day Walker Pelletier passes the torch
- Morgan Esperance | October 19, 2020
On October 20 at midnight, Chief Marie Ann Day Walker Pelletier will retire after nearly 40 years serving Okanese First Nation.
Day Walker Pelletier’s hope for the next Chief and Council is to continue the things she worked on.
“Our culture and language, our knowledge, our ceremonies, we've really emphasized the importance of that…for our children, our adults, our elders,” she said.
Day Walker Pelletier ran for Chief because band members asked her to help the First Nation. She became Chief on March 5, 1981.
At age 26, she was the only female chief and says she was intimidated because she was in a male dominated role, but she persevered.
Day Walker Pelletier said she had to find her voice and address issues in her own way. In her early years, there were older male Chiefs who spoke the Cree language in a sexual way about her.
“They didn't know that (I knew,) I just let them go on and on and talk. Then one day I just got fed up with it and I said, ‘you know, Chief, I really understand Cree.’ That was the end of that.”
“I always read or did a bit of research on what I was going to be doing. I tried to be equal to the males,” she said.
Day Walker Pelletier has set an example for female Chiefs to stand up for each other, such as the time she had the FSIN Women’s Committee elevated to the Women’s Commission.
One of Day Walker Pelletier’s challenges was dealing with Indian Affairs’ colonial thinking.
“Changing their mentality to recognize that First Nations way of thinking, way of living, way of accepting things is different from their policies that they initiate, that one shoes does not fit all,” she said.
A highlight for Day Walker Pelletier was working for 10 years to get a facility for child and family welfare. When it finally became a reality, elders named it “DayWalker Home Fire Family Center.”
“Now we’ve got a home that will be opening soon to facilitate and reintegrate our kids back into their families and back into their communities,” she said.
Day Walker Pelletier’s mentors are elders and knowledge keepers who have guided her over the years. She said there are too many to name, but she relied on them for prayers for health and at the beginning of projects in the community.
“They always told me that people may be angry, not because they're angry at you (but) they're angry at themselves and they're voicing out their anger because deep down they're hurting. It took me a while to understand that,” she said.
Connie Big Eagle, Chief of Ocean Man First Nation, said she will miss Day Walker’s good sense and warmth.
“She’s sensible, not everyone has that,” said Big Eagle said.
Sometimes during meetings, a conversation would “go astray” and Day Walker Pelletier would speak up and turn the whole conversation around, leading to a reasonable motion, she said.
Big Eagle got to know Day Walker Pelletier when Big Eagle accompanied her mother, the late Chief Laura Big Eagle, to meetings in the two years before she died, helping her ailing mother to continue her work.
After her mother died, band members encouraged her to run for chief, which she did. When she showed up at meetings in her mother’s place, Day Walker Pelletier welcomed her and dubbed her, “Baby Chief.”
In 2019, Day Walker Pelletier received the Order of Canada for her work and determination as the longest serving Chief. Governor General Julie Payette presented the award as her family looked on.
“Just being among all those people and I was thinking to myself, ‘oh man. Here's little old me.’ It was quite the experience,” she said.
Her advice for anyone who intends to run for chief, is to do it because you want to help the people and be prepared to make sacrifices in your personal life.
“(My family) kind of had to live on their own while I was being Chief,” she said.
“Are you prepared to sacrifice one hundred per cent? A Chief does not have a nine-to-five job. It’s 24-seven.”
In her retirement, Day Walker Pelletier will concentrate on writing a book about her life and call it “Against the Odds.”
She also intends to allow things to come to her instead of going to them.
The File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council has established a $40,000.00 bursary fund in her name to be distributed over 4 years with $10,000.00 per year.