Enterprising indigenous arts leader and job coach running for MLA
When Theresa Wride was preparing a piece of caribou hair art for the Queen, it didn’t occur to her that this was all that unusual. She took this interaction in the same stride she takes every encounter in life – levelly and with an understanding of the need for dignity in human relationships.
“I learned that from my Dad,” she said. “He had a way of accepting and bridging cultural differences. “He treated everyone with the same calm respect, and they responded to that.” Theresa was born in Norway House Cree Nation, where her father, Samuel Thomas, worked for INAC (the name then for the department of Indian Affairs) as the chief fire prevention officer for the northern region. He had to deal with different people every day, helping them to overcome the fear and ignorance that often leads to misunderstanding.
“He was helpful. He offered practical advice and encouragement,” she said. He understood the importance of community and how to create and maintain relationships. Theresa inherited this skill. “You don’t see colour,” her sister told her. “You treat everyone with respect. You’re like Dad!”
You sense this quiet strength in Theresa when you meet. Her features are kind, her manner warm but energetic, yet calm at the same time. She exudes natural confidence.
She is also practical, determined and resourceful. This is attested to from the way she learned her art. “Growing up we didn’t have much,” she said, but her mother was skilled at making do, at using odd bits of this and that to improve life. Odd bits included every part of the game they captured, including scraps of hide and the hair. Through her land-based education, Theresa was imprinted with the shapes of the world around her. Recreating those shapes came naturally to her. She could feel them and translate them into visual art. Tufting, the action of creating and sculpturing caribou hair art, was something she taught herself.
She is so good at it that selling her pieces allowed her to be a stay-at-home mother, raising Benjamin, now 24, and Janelle, now 22, while she also cared for her mother-in-law at home for many years and later her own mother, Jane Mary Anderson, for a time when she was ill. “It was good for the kids to grow up so close to their grandparents,” she noted. Her mother-in-law has now moved to town and her own mother has returned to Norway House, but Theresa cherishes those days of companionship.
Her husband, Dale, worked in mining exploration. They own a small hobby farm located between Flin Flon and the airport where they raise a few farm animals. “We met when we were both working at a tourist lodge,” she said. A spark flared that has never been extinguished. They married and for the first five years, they spent time in the tourism industry working in the lodges in the summer, sometimes travelling to work trade shows, then working at mineral exploration camps, often living in tents.
After five years, it was time to start a family, so they moved back to Flin Flon and settled on Dale’s family farm, which they own today.
They live off the grid, generating their own power through solar panels backed up by a generator. “We learned to be very wise with our use of electricity,” Theresa said.
Over the next 20 years, Theresa would become very well educated as a career counsellor and job coach. She is well known and respected throughout the region, both on her home reserve and in town. She is board member of NorVA Centre and the chair of both the Grant Committee and the Inclusion Committee, among other activities. She earned her high school diploma in Thompson, where her family moved to accommodate her dad’s job. She has taken a multitude of courses and earned several certificates since then to bring her knowledge level up to a very high degree.
Now she is about to embark on the adventure of her life. She is running in the upcoming election to become the Progressive Conservative member of the provincial legislature. “It is time for a change,” she says, pointing out that the NDP have represented Flin Flon for 50 years, since 1969. However, the incumbent NDP member won by only 152 votes in the last election.
Theresa sees Flin Flon and the region changing. This encompasses more than a shift from total dependence on one company – survival of the community and prosperity for the region will depend on a deepening and widening of the economy. This could include tourism and the arts, two activities where Theresa has a lot of experience. She understands the impetus behind the Flin Flon Arts Council to have Flin Flon declared a Centre of Arts for the North and to begin the work needed to create a school of arts in the town.
She also understands and supports more diversified activity in the mining sector, with more exploration, faster permitting and a stronger partnership with the indigenous communities.
“What if we could prepare our youth to become geologists here in the north?” she proposes. Or perhaps develop courses to earn a geology degree or an environmental geologist certificate? Her creative energy is fed by new ideas.
Her own background has taught her how to help people get back on their feet. Her upbringing of resourcefulness and gaining stature through self-support has imbued her with an understanding of how this can regenerate a population. Now she wants to put that experience to work to help her region regain its once vibrant drive and its sense of opportunity and enterprise.
What’s it been like knocking on doors and talking to people? “I have had a very good response,” she says, adding that many have told her that they plan to vote for the very first time. She has that innate ability to inspire people she meets with a sense of her own energy and her positive outlook on life.
Recently her son graduated from the Canadian Mennonite University. “Imagine,” he said, “back in 1960, it was illegal to vote. Your parents could have lost their treaty status. Now you are running to become an MLA. How cool is that?” It’s very, very cool. And it will be even cooler when she wins.
By Dorothy Dobbie