At 65 years old, Marion Lerat was ready to retire from her job as a social worker. In her own words, she was the “happiest girl in the world.”

Then her phone rang.

On the other line, Alberta Child Welfare Services was asking her to do work with the organization as an Elder.

While it varies from community to community, an Elder is someone who passes on knowledge, teachings and wisdom to others. The role is not necessarily defined by age.

Now 75, Lerat says the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

Mid-interview, she picks up a call.

“It’s the lady I was talking to, she’s having a big crisis,” explains Lerat.

For Lerat, the emotional labour that comes with being an elder isn’t a distraction. It’s about the impact she makes.

“If I could see I make a difference, oh my goodness, I’m ecstatic. I’m happy I made a difference in someone’s life. With my people, I know how poor they are. I work with a lot of people for nothing, you know? There’s no dollar signs attached,” says Lerat.

A LONG JOURNEY

“I love it. I love helping people, if I can. I always ask the Creator to put me where I’m most needed. And that’s where I end up.” – Elder Marion Lerat

The traditional values of her parents and grandparents, originally from the Kahkewistahaw Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, have protected Lerat through traumatic times.

Lerat says when she was “five years and two weeks old,” she was taken away from her family to a residential school where she stayed for 11 years.

“I ask in a humble way that [the creator] help me get rid of my fear, my shame and my anger. And if he please replace it with kindness, respect and [acceptance]. And then I say thank you and that’s the end of my prayer,” describes Lerat.

Lerat prays daily. She says her prayers have helped her through many stages, including surviving residential school, raising eight children, being a partner in a 58-year marriage, becoming a social worker at 50 and now the role of a busy elder. Prayer has helped her persevere through difficult parts of her life.

“I feel I walked a mountain. Barefooted. I was always trying, trying, you know? Everything, trying. Just kept on going. And when I had my babies, I [did] the same for them. I pushed them, I pushed them, I went to school with them, I kept very good track of them so nobody would steal them,” explains Lerat.

Lerat has spent most of her life caring for others — her husband, children, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren.  She also works with various schools, including  post-secondaries like Mount Royal University and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). She also visits inmates at various institutions, including Edmonton Institution, which Lerat colloquially refers to as “the big house,” a reference to it being a federal maximum security prison.

The work she includes at these institutions can vary, from meeting one-on-one with people, being an Elder in Residence at SAIT’s Chinook Lodge and even speaking in front of classes. She spends time figuring out the problems people are facing and how to solve them.

“I’m very great at wanting to know where these problems come from and how they could be fixed, and they could be fixed but you have to get the client in the right space and let them know that there is a better life,” she says.

AN ELDER’S WORK

Beyond her visits, Lerat is often invited to open, close and even smudge at ceremonies. Some worry Elders at events run the risk of being “just for show,” but Lerat isn’t worried about that and says she hopes people can still learn something when they work with her.

“I love it. I love helping people, if I can. I always ask the Creator to put me where I’m most needed. And that’s where I end up,” says Lerat.

It’s emotional work. And for different communities, it means different things.

While the name suggests the role is defined by age, it’s more about gaining the respect of the community and being able to teach others.

For Lerat, being an Elder means being true to oneself.

“As a little girl, my grandparents were very traditional, and they [did] some dancing, and I was taught respect; kindness. First to be kind, and respect and accept. That’s what I learnt when I was very little. And that stayed with me. That’s what I expect from an Elder.”

 amclinden@cjournal.ca

Edited by Logan Peters| lpeters@cjournal.ca