Elder Marggo Pariseau has never forgotten her first day in Edmonton — and it’s inspired her to be a shining light for Indigenous women
By Steven Sandor | August 27, 2022
No one is ever going to remember Edmonton’s downtown bus terminal fondly.
It was like many bus terminals in downtowns throughout North America: filled with people with very little money, on their own, looking to leave their old lives behind and start again.
Disembarking from so many buses were single, vulnerable people — many of them young women. Bus stations were often filled with pimps and dealers, looking to connect with these lonely people just seconds after they’d arrived. Making bold promises about money. Making offers that couldn’t be refused. Leading women towards lives in Edmonton that would be worse than the ones they left behind.
Marggo Pariseau remembers arriving in the city as a teenager, leaving behind the northern Alberta hamlet of Faust, which she recalls the locals nicknamed “The Devil’s Town” because of the issues of poverty and addiction that were so common there. She had nothing, knew no one, when she stepped off the bus.
“I was clueless,” she recalls. “It was like, by the grace of God, there go I. I didn’t realize that it was the hangout for the pimps and the drug dealers. I got off the bus and I thought, ‘God, what am I going to do?’”
And that’s where she was intercepted by Clara Woodbridge, an advocate for Indigenous women. Woodbridge took Pariseau under her wing, helping the teen find a couple of jobs and a safe place to stay.
“If I hadn’t met Clara, I wouldn’t have made it past 18 years old,” recalls Pariseau. “The city would have been too big. I would have returned home, but I would have returned home damaged.”
Pariseau often thinks of that fateful meeting, and how having a mentor come into her life at just the right time likely saved her from falling through the cracks. Now, Pariseau counsels Indigenous women who have been incarcerated — in an environment that promotes Indigenous spiritual connection. The Firekeepers program is one of many programs run by the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW), of which Pariseau is a co-founder and current vice-president. The IAAW coordinates many programs that benefit and advance the causes of Indigenous women, and administers the Esquao Awards. The awards, founded 26 years ago, recognize Indigenous women who have done remarkable work in fields of art, business, human rights, plus community and children’s services.
Woodbridge, who passed away in 2005, was a charter recipient of an Esquao Award for community service in 1996.
Firekeepers fills a gap that Pariseau recognized in the justice system. For parolees, life after prison is filled with counselling sessions. They have to report to the authorities and remain sober. It means many chat sessions in church basements. And while this system is definitely tried, it isn’t always true to Indigenous women. Pariseau thought there had to be a better way — to bring Indigenous women back to nature, to gather for sweats, to reconnect with themselves.
“These women have been traumatized so much, but they need to remember the good, too,” she says, “I love these women like they were my younger sisters. My heart is big, I know that.”
How to reconnect with the “good?” By going out tobogganing together. By going for nature hikes. Firekeepers has a safe area close to Enoch that Pariseau refers to as the “nest,” where the women can go to reflect and commiserate. Pariseau believes a special bond exists between Indigenous people and the outdoors, and by being away from the environments of classrooms and meeting rooms, the women can remember the families that they may not have seen for years. They may remember the communities they once knew. They may begin a journey of healing.
“If you live in regret, you aren’t going to move forward,” she says.
The Roots of IAAW
It was 1974, and Marggo Pariseau needed a job. Any job. She went to an outreach centre in Edmonton, where she met a counselor named Muriel Stanley Venne. Pariseau recognized then and there that the job she really wanted was to be in that office, to help other people in her shoes.
“I was making myself a real pain in the butt, thinking maybe they’ll end up hiring me and liking me,” she recalls.
Pariseau, though, was assigned a job at a plywood shop. She was the guinea pig in a deal between the shop owners and Venne. The local shop had previously hired workers through the outreach centre, but there was frustration because those new employees wouldn’t stay past their first paycheques. So, Venne made a deal with the shop owners: If they could find them one Indigenous worker who stuck, they’d hire 50 more Indigenous employees. That one worker was Pariseau.
“I stayed with them for three months, so then they hired 50 other Indigenous people,” says Pariseau.
And then Pariseau got her wish. Venne hired her as an employment officer. Together, they helped launch an Indigenous women’s shelter, where Pariseau worked for 20 years,
And, in the mid 1990s, they were part of a group that created the Esquao Awards — to honour the sort of women who had helped Pariseau on her journey.
Pariseau understands that her own journey may have been very different if she hadn’t been intercepted at the bus terminal so many years ago. When she sees the women in Firekeepers, she sees her own road not taken.
“I walked through those doors still stuck in my addictions, but Kokum Marggo never turned me away,” wrote Firekeeper Tara Badger in a testimonial. “She has been such a big help and support with my sobriety. She was even kind enough to come visit me in Footprints Healing Centre along with the other ladies in Firekeepers. That meant a lot to me, to have them come, and also come to my graduation day of the program.”
And, after they graduate, Pariseau does not forget them. She sees these women as her extended family. She celebrates when they reach personal milestones, such as graduating their classes or getting jobs.
“And, if one of them tells me that she has met a guy, I want to meet him!” she laughs.
Because a mentor never forgets. Not Woodbridge. Not Venne. And not Marggo Pariseau.