By Clint Buehler
For Bertha Clark Jones, contributing is not just something she does, it has always been her way of life.
And that way of life and the contributions that resulted from it have now been recognized by her own people. At a gala event in Edmonton in March she will receive the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation’s 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award.
The way of life she has chosen certainly hasn’t always been easy.
Growing up isolated in northern Alberta, one of 14 children, she knows first-hand the hardships of struggling to survive during the Great Depression.
But that experience also gave her the will and determination to not only survive, but to take on great challenges. And she credits her parents and grandparents for the lessons learned from their example.
“They were so traditional and honest and hardworking. . There were 14 of us to raise in some of the hardest times.”
She grew up strong, her excellence as an athlete and her success in sports—despite often having to face daunting odds and historical prejudice—giving her a foundation of confidence that she could build on. “I would have liked to become a nurse, but I also loved sports and if I didn’t do what I had done, I would have promoted sports and encouraged youth to get involved.”
What she did instead took her down several different paths.
Service in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War brought its own challenges and lessons, and led to her lifetime interest in, and support for, the fair treatment of Aboriginal veterans.
Always a champion of the underdog, even as a child she would stand up for anyone she felt was being unfairly treated. And that was particularly true of Native people—and especially Native women.
With the rise of numerous pro-active initiatives on behalf of Native people in the 1960s and 1970s, Bertha turned her attention to the plight of Native women, marginalized both in the mainstream and, sometimes, within their own communities In response, she was a co-founder of the Voice of Alberta Women (VANW) to represent the interest of all Native women.
That presented an interesting challenge because Native women were divided by status: There were those women who were Status Indians themselves, or whose mothers were Status Indians, and had lost their Indian Status by marrying men who were not Status Indians and were striving to regain their Status.. Then there were Metis women like Bertha, and “Non-Status” Indian women who had no viable argument for gaining Indian Status, but still needed the support of the organization to challenge the systemic marginalization and the lack of resources and opportunity they faced.
Bertha was one of those who helped to maintain the delicate balance that enabled the VANW to effectively represent both groups of women, even when Bill C-31 was passed to give the first group of women a vehicle for regaining their Indian Status.
It was that success in Alberta that led to the formation of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, with Bertha as its co-founder and first president, which immediately became a powerful voice for Native women in this country.
She may now say that she is “retired,” but she continues to be active in many ways, continuing to recognize, respect, promote, defend and enhance Native ancestral laws, spiritual beliefs, language and traditions.
Her current concern is education. “We need to keep our young people in school. I never really had an education, but nowadays you have to have one to fit into society.”
On a more personal note, “I love to garden and look after my plants. In the winter I still shovel my walk and I read a lot and just putter around the house. “ That reading currently includes the biography of another National .Aboriginal Achievement Award recipient, Dr. Herb Belcourt: “Walking in the Woods: A Metis Journey.”
Favourite artist? “I used to love Wilf Carter, the yodeling cowboy.”
Late nights of early riser? “Both. I can stay up late and sleep in, or wake up early. But in the past I’ve always been an early riser.”
Favourite place to travel in the world? “I like Australia; I wish I could go back there. It was beautiful and the people were so friendly.”
The best advice you ever received? “My older brother cared for us and he alwaysaid to us, ‘Be a lady.’ I thought of it many times even though I wasn’t a lot of the time I thought about it. I guess it means don’t be foolish, have respect for yourself and others.”