She was called the "Boss of Everybody" and the "Mayor of Main Street."
Mary Richard, Akokaochise (Groundhog) of the Mahkwa (Bear) Clan and a tireless advocate for Aboriginal rights, left an indelible mark on Winnipeg’s Indigenous community, with Circle of Life Thunderbird House on Main Street a monument of her hard work.
In 1997, Richard was appointed by then-mayor Susan Thompson to co-chair the North Main Task Force, which examined social problems in north Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community. One result was the redevelopment of the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street into Thunderbird House.
Richard was the first executive director of the Indigenous spiritual gathering place when it opened in 2000 and the driving force to see the facility as more than just a tourist attraction. Under her leadership, it became a centre for social justice, offering programs to assist Aboriginal youth escape solvent abuse, gang life and the sex trade.
In 2000, Richard was given the Order of Manitoba for her role as president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, along with her community work, which included serving as a board member of The Forks North Portage Partnership, on the Heritage Council of Manitoba and the Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development.
Richard received other important accolades, including the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the YM-YWCA Woman of Distinction Award and senator for the National Association of Friendship Centres.
In an article published in Windspeaker, a former employee spoke about Richard’s generosity and kindness while working in the North End.
Richard had bought a suit jacket and two pairs of pants for a recently released inmate to find work. The money came from her own pocket. Richard also bought a young girl a ticket home after she saw her crying in a bus shelter. These are examples of her connection to the community in which she served.
Upon her death in 2010, the National Association of Friendship Centres remembered Richard’s work on various local and federal volunteer boards. Her list of involvement was long and impressive, but also remarkably diverse.
Richard served, at various points, as president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg; president of the Indigenous Women’s Collective; executive director of the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre and the Manitoba Association of Native Languages; co-owner of Bungees Restaurant; and board member of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Neeginan, Median Credit Union, National Economic Development, Indian Business Development Group, Nuclear Waste Management and the Native Women’s Transition Centre.
Along with her advocacy work, Richard was passionate about the retention of Aboriginal languages. An article published in Indspire, an organization dedicated to Aboriginal education, says Richard was the director of the Manitoba Association of Native Languages for almost a decade, ensuring traditional languages were not lost.
"We were just becoming aware of language loss, but had no materials for teaching," she said of her work during the 1980s. "So, we got elders together with language speakers and I raised the money to get the books printed."
Indspire reported the education kits were made possible after Richard raised $500,000.
Richard was born in the community of Camperville, located next to Lake Winnipegosis. She studied to be a hair dresser, then fell in love with her husband, Damas, and stayed at home as a "domestic engineer" until her boys were old enough for her to return to work.
And return to work she did.
Richard ran twice for political office.
The first was in the 1999 provincial election, under the Progressive Conservative banner in Winnipeg’s Point Douglas constituency. It was part of an effort by the Filmon government to improve its prominence in the Aboriginal community. She lost to the NDP’s George Hickes, but the Conservatives increased their vote share in the constituency.
She ran again in 2000. This time, it was a federal race, and she switched parties to run as a Liberal against New Democrat incumbent Judy Wasylycia-Leis in the old Winnipeg North Centre riding. Richard finished second.
Richard died in September 2010, at the age of 70, following a kidney transplant. She had been a diabetic for years.
The Boss of Everybody and the Mayor of Main Street was a trailblazer for Aboriginal language preservation and an advocate for human rights. She led a truly amazing life.
Shannon Sampert is a retired political scientist and is working with the Nellie McClung Foundation on the 150 Women Trailblazers Awards. Nominate a trailblazer at wfp.to/trailblazers.
SEARCHING FOR TRAILBLAZING WOMEN
The Nellie McCliung Foundation is looking for female Manitoba trailblazers in advance of the province's 150 anniversary — and they want to hear from you. Nominate a trailblazer and share her story about show she made the province great at wfp.to/trailblazers