Maria married a man with traditional gender expectations of women as service-providers. She remembers, "It really dawned on me that there was a lot of education to be done for women. Why should we be the slaves?" After she completed her teacher training, Maria stayed in the education workforce as well as managing her household and raising a daughter. It was a stance that earned her criticism from those who felt her place was at home.
She became involved in various organizations and was named as one of the first women on the Board of the Evangeline Credit Union (La Caisse populaire Évangéline), accurately predicting what would happen at their first meeting:
You wait and see, they'll get together – all the board members – and they'll say, "Here's the teacher, the secretary: she can write the notes". It's exactly what happened. I said, "No thanks, when I take a position here, I'll take the presidency". They were all taken aback – I dared to say that as a woman?
In fact, Maria did become the first woman president of the Mont Carmel Cooperative from 1985-1987.
Being strong and being on top of things.
Maria did not accept that she must behave submissively at home, at school, or in her community. What helped to sustain her conviction was the confidence achieved when being selected for the role of school principal because of her successes as a teacher of primary and secondary students. Convinced she could make a difference, Maria was willing to push herself "to go a little further".
Women's rights formed the core of four decades of her activism. She focused on the right to be equal, the right to be treated fairly and not as second-class citizens because women work at home, without pay or pension for decades. She observed that many widowed women lived below the poverty line and felt strongly they had the right to a reasonable income. She also spoke out for the right to quality day care and good education for women.
In the late 1990s, Maria experienced just how difficult it was to have her voice heard as a woman. In Ottawa to meet with Stephane Dion and other parliamentarians, a group of francophones from across Canada who had converged to discuss funding for healthcare programs. Maria was overlooked as the men in the delegations spoke, but never listened to her despite her impressive record of activism on behalf of francophones. Finally, in Stephane Dion's office, her frustration at being excluded from the conversation peaked, and she claimed the right to speak: "I have something to say, too," she remembers saying, and then described how she had helped organize French language health services offered at the Evangeline Community Health Centre in Wellington, PEI. She was vindicated because Stephane Dion listened to her, and he said, "That's the best thing I've heard today".
When she first became a teacher in the 1960s, Maria joined a women's organization that helped people in economic need. In her assessment, however, the female members did not stand up for themselves and were not treated equally; for instance, if the men decided to have a picnic, it was the women who did all the work. Such obedience to traditional roles, she decided, was "not really being a woman" in the latter part of the 20th Century when women could better assume their rightful place in society at last, and participate fully in community decision-making.
Consequently, in 1978 Maria and some of her colleagues set up l'Association des Femmes Acadiennes (AFA) for the Evangeline area of Prince Edward Island, which grew into a province-wide organization and an Atlantic-wide network called Action-Femmes devoted to "socio-economic equity among Acadian and Francophone women living in minority situations".
Action-Femmes helped women define and defend their rights and exercise their decision-making power within the communities where they lived; encouraging women to stop tolerating the oppression that was too often rationalized with reference to "established traditions". At the time, women were still regarded as subordinate in status: they were paid less for work of equal value; not recognized for years of service in staff promotion processes; excluded from community decision-making processes; and had no roles of significance within the Catholic church, where they were actively discouraged from questioning church doctrine. Neither were women represented on organizational Boards, nor did they appear on the slate of candidates in government elections.
The Action-Femmes focused on raising the awareness of gender-related issues, from erroneous assumptions about women, to the language used to denigrate them – so that, Maria says, "the next time, they might think twice".
Coping with grief and separation
Maria was just 40 years old when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack, and she found herself quickly reduced in social standing, as dictated by tradition – "just a poor widow". She knew that not only must she learn to cope with her grief, but that she would also have to become more affirmative in defending her rights. Joining an association called "New Beginnings" for separated, divorced and widowed women, Maria's pro-active approach to problem-solving prompted her participation in a program of 15 intensive weekends for separated, divorced and widowed adults that was coordinated by the Catholic Diocese in Charlottetown. Maria found herself in Louisiana addressing a large conference on grief, describing how the PEI Catholic program was helping adults work through traumatic times. The audience reaction was so positive that it contributed further to her confidence and belief in what she was doing.
Sexual assaults on women
Between 1998 and 2001, Maria was president of the PEI Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, and volunteered with the crisis hotline for eight years as the only francophone. "I thought I could make a little difference there with women who had been abused – it gave me a lot of personal satisfaction that I could be there to support them." In 2001, she and five other French-speaking women undertook special training before being hired on contract to help victims of violence as they worked their way through the judicial system of PEI.
Société Saint-Thomas d'Aquin (The Acadian Society of PEI)
Between 2000 and 2004, Maria was President of the Société Saint-Thomas d'Aquin (the Acadian Society of Prince Edward Island). With their motto of "Courage et persévérance", this group lobbied for their right as francophones to be educated in the French language at a time when many people thought that having a French education was a privilege rather than a right. Maria and her Société colleagues had to convince provincial leaders with some basic statistics, for instance, "30,000 Islanders are of Acadian descent, but because of their lack of French language education, only 6,000 could still speak the language".
As president, Maria did a lot of lobbying in Ottawa for a French school in the western part of the Island and now there is one located in Summerside, PEI. It was a campaign that went on for years, and involved her group going to court for a group of francophone parents who couldn't get their children educated in their own language. They won, and called on the Premier of the time to request a French school as a basic right.
Once they got the federal and provincial parties together, Maria and her colleagues could present detailed arguments for equitable treatment as the significant language minority group on PEI, and productive discussions began. The Société put forward arguments over the course of many meetings that were always carefully buttressed by extensive research on the history of the issue, current conditions, and reasoned projections to justify a multi-purpose building that would function as a community and cultural centre, uniting several smaller but very active francophone communities.
Being president of Société Saint-Thomas d'Aquin, Maria had to ensure that all presentations and speeches were thoroughly prepared and be ready for difficult questions. Sometimes she had to challenge the thinking of ordinary citizens about who was deserving, whose basic language rights were at stake, and what language was "universal". Her style was educational, but not combative, as this recollection of a meeting for changing perspectives on minority rights in a bilingual country reveals:
One lady asked me, "Why do you want to put these kids in a French school?" I said, "OK, you're English, your children are English, how would you like it if they were forced to go to a French school?" And she said, "I wouldn't like it". I said, "Your neighbours are French, they speak French at home, it's their language, they're from a bilingual country, and they're forced to put their kids in an English school". She said, "I never thought of it that way". "But they have as much right as you do, and you would fight if you had to put your children in a French school and you didn't want to". She said, "You're right". I always try to make them see the difference.
Maria believes that it's important to understand the history of insecurity and inferiority in the francophone community that has roots in the brutal deportation of thousands of Acadians from PEI to France in 1758 by the British government.
A diagnosis of cancer in 2005 forced Maria to step back from her activism for treatment and rest. But today, fully recovered, she volunteers for two organizations, the Société Saint-Thomas d'Aquin as a Board member, and as President of the Association des Francophones de l'âge d'or de l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard since May of 2010. Her current focus is on integrating senior francophones into supportive educational and social groups. As the provincial government designs and implements its legislation affecting seniors, the Association des Francophones de l'âge d'or de l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard acts as a policy watchdog for their rights.