By Sieglinde Stieda
On Jan. 23, Grand Chief Dr. Rose Charlie of Sts’Ailes (Chehalis), was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her service to the community.
Her volunteer work included being on the board of the Friends of the Hatzic Rock, (now Xá:ytem), environmental work regarding the protection of eagles, and 28 years as unpaid president of the British Columbia Indian Homemakers’ Association (BCIHA), the first provincial Indigenous women’s organization.
In this latter capacity, Charlie had a knack for hiring brilliant women such as the late Kitty Bell-Sparrow, who was editor of the IHA’s newspaper The Indian Voice from 1969-1984. Charlie and Bell-Sparrow dared to tackle social justice issues of racism, sexism, and colonialism in both words and actions.
Cathy Converse considers Rose Charlie as one of the women who shaped B.C.
Converse’s description of all the women in her book Mainstays, certainly applies to Rose Charlie:
“They were flexible, saw what had to be done and just did it, often changing themselves as much as they changed the province.”
Charlie did everything, from teaching aboriginal women homemaking skills, bringing water and sewer to reserves, to organizing women locally, provincially and federally.
She, along with other brilliant and determined Aboriginal women worked tirelessly to change Section 12 (1)(b) of Canada’s Indian Act . The result was Bill C-31 that, in 1985 returned “Indian status” to Aboriginal women and their children who had lost this status by marrying white men.
Her diplomacy with Aboriginal men extended to being a major fundraiser for the founding of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in 1969. She organized two 200-mile Moccasin Walks in order to finance the bringing together for the first time ever, all the chiefs of B.C. This meeting resulted in the formation of the still active Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Mrs. Charlie was rewarded for these efforts by being named a Grand Chief of British Columbia. She also formed the BC Association of Non-status Indians, now the United Native Nations (UNN).
Grand Chief Rose Charlie received another major honour from her people when a totem pole carved by three carvers was raised in her honour in Hope. At the top of the totem pole is a canoe with four figures representing “white, red, black, and Asian figures,” a symbol indicating that Grand Chief Charlie had always worked with peoples from all cultures. Marion Robinson, I, and a few federal partners were the only non-Native people present at this ceremony along with about 600 First Nation people.
It is most appropriate that the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal was pinned on Charlie by another dynamic woman, the Hon. Judith Guichon, the current Lieut.-Gov. of B.C.
Charlie has also earned an honorary doctor of law degree from UBC in 1989, the Governor General’s award in Commemoration of the Persons Case in 1994, the Order of British Columbia in 2003, the Fraser Basin Council’s Doreen Wright award in 2003, the National Year of the Child Award from the B.C. government, and a certificate of merit from the Government of Canada. Furthermore, one year Grand Chief, Dr. Rose Charlie was listed among the 100 most influential women in Canada.
Today, this widow of a wood-cutter, and mother of six adult children and numerous grandchildren, and former chief of her band, lives on the Sts’Ailes (Chehalis) reserve east of Mission, in a modest house and on a very modest government pension. Those of us who have met Grand Chief, Dr. Rose Charlie, are the richer for having interacted with her.
Sieglinde Steida serves as vice-president with the Mission Seniors Advisory Committee.