At last count the number of countries Victoria De La Ronde has lived in or visited stood at 64. But the total hadn’t been updated since she returned from a month-long South American cruise in the spring. That trip included a memorable stop in Brazil to journey up the Amazon River. Having been unable to get over a lifelong bout with the travel bug, De La Ronde now says she has set her sights on reaching the 100-country mark. “At an early age this pressure began building up in me to travel,” she says. “It was in my 20s. So, I began travelling in the hopes that I would get over this obsession with visiting places and seeing new things. I never have been able to get over it.”
She is not going to even try to get over work. The 65-year-old lawyer has officially retired after a distinguished career that was highlighted by the past 10 years spent as the director of treaty policy for the department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Despite just recently easing into a chair in front of the first television she has ever owned, De La Ronde admits she won’t be sitting still for long. “I just need to rest a bit,” she says.
When you consider the path De La Ronde has travelled since leaving the family farm at Meadow Lake, Sask., at 18, it’s no wonder she’s decided to take a bit of a breather. Aside from decades of service with both INAC and Veterans Affairs, she has accumulated three master’s degrees, including one from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a member of the bar in both New York and Ontario and previously launched a market research business that would force the Canadian government to re-evaluate its role in the always-tricky relationship with the country’s aboriginal community. She also worked in the Caribbean in the ’80s researching ways of turning waste into ethanol to be used as lead-free fuel.
“Victoria is very passionate about her work,” says former colleague Ray Hatfield, director general of individual affairs for the former INAC, which in May was renamed Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. “Whatever the job, Victoria got right into it. She was very conscious about her contribution and was a very progressive thinker. Also, the people skills that Victoria has helped her in the various positions she has held for the past 10 years. She is able to develop positive relationships with everyone.”
Possibly her proudest moment was her work on the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, where she led efforts to protect aboriginal businesses. Only Canada had thought to do so during its negotiations with the United States and Mexico and, though De La Ronde says she was part of a team, she made sure it happened during 11th-hour negotiations. “I was very happy to be there and catch that,” she says. “No one else had the background in that area so it wouldn’t have got done.”
Then there was the time De La Ronde’s research company opened a huge can of worms by releasing a study in the late ’90s that said Canada’s native community would rank on par with some restrictive Middle Eastern nations in terms of quality of life. While Canada as a whole traditionally sits in the top three on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, De La Ronde and a research partner put our aboriginal population at 65th.
Native rights had become a contentious issue following the Oka Crisis involving Mohawks on the Kanesatake reserve in Quebec in the summer of 1990. De La Ronde argued against making those findings public, but the findings were leaked to The Globe and Mail in October 1998, and the government fumbled for words to defend the results. “It gave the government a comfort level to move towards responding to the findings of the Oka Report from 1991,” says De La Ronde. “Clearly there was a gap between the two populations.”
De La Ronde had peripheral involvement in Oka. As a representative of INAC, she was asked to mediate a tax dispute that sprung up when the Kanesatake iron workers, after originally being told they were exempt from paying income tax while building the skyscrapers of New York, later found tax had been deducted from their paycheques. De La Ronde helped sort out the problem by bringing the two sides together to negotiate. It was a precursor to her treaty work. “One of the big misconceptions in our country is that natives don’t pay taxes. It is simply not true, there may be some exemptions for those living on the reserve, but they actually pay thousands of dollars in taxes.”
De La Ronde is Métis. Her grandfather was Cree and her grandmother German. She grew up in a house speaking four languages — French was the family’s other tongue. Through Grade 8, De La Ronde was the only admitted aboriginal person in her school. “So many [aboriginals] deny any connection to their ancestry. They decide to stay hidden. Living as an aboriginal wouldn’t open doors,” says De La Ronde. “But in Meadow Lake it was common knowledge that I was Métis. My grandfather looked Cree.”
Her grandfather Paul was a hunter and trapper of note in northern Saskatchewan in the 1880s. A lake in that area is named in his honour. One of her former colleagues believes there is a connection between her character and his. “Victoria has a tenacity and focus and determination that I believe is inherited from her grandfather,” says Saskatchewan’s treaty commissioner, Judge David Arnot. “I believe her ancestors would be very proud of her for all she’s done in her career.”
Yet another amazing thing about De La Ronde is she’s accomplished all she has while ignoring worsening eyesight, along with the roadblocks of her race that she’s ignored. For 50 years she has suffered from retinitis, a progressive disease that rendered her legally blind. Unable to read print for the past six years, she makes use of software that turns the written word into audio. “I was at a crossroads back in the ’70s when I was trying to decide between going to law school and medical school. It was because of my eyesight that I went into law,” she says. “I was seeing less and less and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see what I needed to see under a microscope to be effective as a doctor. So I went to law school.”
Despite her eyesight, De La Ronde has been a woman of vision.