THUNDER BAY -- Marlene Pierre won the Ontario Native Women's Association's “Celebrating 50 years” Award at the organization's 2021 Annual General Assembly.
"It came as a complete surprise to me and my family, I was taken back quite a bit, I was excited, I was amazed, I was, for once in my life, I couldn't really say too much because it was such an extravagant affair," said Pierre.
"It was a beautiful dinner that they had celebrating the occasion, the awards, not only to myself but several other women in Ontario who have devoted their work throughout their lives to their communities."
Marlene Pierre is one of the founders and past executive director of the Ontario Native Women's Association and was presented with this award for dedicating herself to improving the lives of Indigenous women and families in Thunder Bay, across Ontario and Canada for the past 55 years.
"It was a strong recognition, especially being the first person to receive this award to recognize the work of women who started out at the very beginning in the early 70s to establish ONWA," Pierre said.
"And I remained with ONWA, right up until when I began working with the Robinson Superior Treaty Women's Council, and we did good work for the women in the territory here, so yeah, the work continued."
She has received many honours for her leadership abilities starting out, as one of the 25 Most Outstanding Women of Ontario in 1975; then given the Order of Ontario in 2008 by the Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley, she was awarded the Queen's Medal by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in 2012, and in addition to the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fort William First Nation, she was presented with a Beautiful Eagle Feather from the Women of the Robinson Treaty Women's Council as a founder and for her work for the children.
While she has not been active in ONWA in recent decades, it is fitting that for ONWA's 50th anniversary she be recognized for the major role she had in its development, her ongoing work as a community advocate for Anishinaabe families and now as an Elder in her 70s.
Pierre's work included the advancement of the local, provincial and national friendship centre movement in the early days and went on to establish a very strong women's movement across Canada, starting with the Ontario Native Women's Association in the early 70s until 1999 when she retired from various leadership capacities.
"In the beginning, we had no money and we had no resources but ourselves, and we had people like Billy Barrett who really helped our movement at the very beginning, she was an organizer, she was non-native, but she was a good friend to the women's movement, we had Donna Phillips who was the president, her and I worked really well together, I hope one day they give her good recognition as well," said Pierre.
"We had a lot of challenges and we were not really welcomed around the table at times because of the effects of, I think, acculturation, we had good friends, mind you, in government and we had a few good friends in the aboriginal organizations, but by and large, it was difficult for myself and others who were leading the organization."
After retiring from leadership at ONWA, she was appointed Adjunct Professor at the University of Manitoba in Indigenous Studies in 2016. Most recently, she was appointed to the Elders Council of the Ministry of the Attorney General and an Elder to the Indigenous Peoples Court in Thunder Bay, Elders Council to the City of Thunder Bay and Head Female Elder of the Nokiiwin Tribal Council and to the School of Indigenous Learning.
Her work has also resulted in the provision of off reserve housing, legal and justice advancements for families, nationally based cultural, educational and social programs for children and their families and has impacted many people in Thunder Bay and throughout Ontario.
She is particularly proud of the role that she played in having the Equality Clause placed into the Canadian Constitution 1980.