Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The grand chief's secret fan

Sharp senior hasn't met him, but she's played a role in Nepinak's rise in the community

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She survived the Great Depression, raising younger siblings when she was a kid herself, became a secretary, then married. Now what does the 96-year-old widow have to show for herself?

"I have a grand chief in my life," said the joyful and effervescent co-founder of the Grace and John Little Opportunity Fund. She and her late husband "Jack" started it for aboriginal students at the University of Winnipeg. One of the recipients, Derek Nepinak, recently became grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"I was thrilled," said Little, who's been following his successes and keeping newspaper clippings about the man she's so proud of but never met.

"He's a smart cookie and a good model for his group," said Little. "I keep everything I see written about him."

She and her late husband started the U of W bursary fund to help aboriginal students.

"I think they've had a bum rap from the Canadian people," said Little, who follows the news but keeps her political views to herself at her assisted living residence.

"The government has been promising them things and, lo and behold, they won't follow up on those promises," said the friendly senior.

"My goal is to get as many kids and young adults as possible educated so they become role models to the younger ones."

She and her husband, who served in the Second World War, weren't able to further their own educations. She went to secretarial school and retired at 65. After serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War, her husband worked for the post office. They didn't have kids, and never paid for anything until they had the cash, and then they were careful with it.

"I don't like spending money on myself," said Little, who earned $40 a week when she married Jack, who earned $80. They saved for a down payment on a three-bedroom bungalow in Fort Garry. Then they saved some more. And, after Jack came home from the office repeating a co-worker's chant "money makes money, money makes money" they began investing it. Thanks to compounding interest, they did fairly well, she said. They're not the Richardsons or the Aspers but they've helped, as much as they could, people and causes dear to them.

"Charity begins at home," said Little. She and her husband helped friends with a down payment a house and helped finance their kids' education.

It's personal, said Little. She meets and champions the recipients of the their "opportunity fund" but has never spoken about it publicly. When her friend, Malaya Marcelino, 24, saw Nepinak at a U of W function, she recognized the grand chief from Little's clippings and told the chief about her.

"She's probably followed my career more closely than anyone in my family," Nepinak, 38, said with a laugh. "I was really surprised."

The chief with a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan and Osgoode Hall was working on his master's degree in indigenous studies at the U of W when his political career took off and he was elected chief of Pine Creek First Nation.

"So much of the leadership work we do in our community is thankless," said Nepinak.

Having a fan like Little was unexpected, he said.

"I'm honoured to be recognized in that way."

Nepinak said he hopes to meet Little some day. So does she.

"He's a handsome guy," she laughed. "I can hardly wait to give him a hug!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 B1

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