Canadian Indigenous actor Wilma Pelly, who was best known for her role as Elsie Tsa Che on the CBC series North of 60, died in Calgary on Dec. 28. Her family says the 83-year-old leaves a legacy of hard work and perseverance.
Pelly’s daughters, Leeanna Rhodes and Stella Pelley, said their mother worked at a gardening centre and in factories before finding work as an extra in the early 1990s.
It led to 25 years of TV, film and theatre roles for Pelly — a consistent source of pride for her children.
“She had no training in being an actress or anything like that, but she nailed it,” Pelley said.
“Nobody in our family had ever done anything like that, so we were really proud of her … and she loved what she did.”
First role was in samurai film
Born Wilma Episkenew in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., on March 5, 1937, Pelly was a member of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation.
When she was four years old, Pelly was taken to a residential school in Lebret, Sask. She lived there for 12 years and experienced cruelty, her daughters said.
“They grabbed her young, very young,” Rhodes said. “You know, she had a tough life … but she persevered.”
In the mid-1950s, Pelly met her future husband, James Edward Pelly. She followed him to Calgary and worked in factories until injuring her hand in an industrial accident.
During her time off, she found an ad in the newspaper looking for extras for a 1990 samurai film called Between Heaven and Earth.
A background role in the film was Pelly’s first foray into acting, and her career expanded to include parts in the 1995 TV miniseries Children of the Dust with Sidney Poitier; the Steven Spielberg-produced 2005 miniseries Into the West; and the second season of the FX series Fargo.
But the role that would make her highly recognizable in Canada — and a famous face in its Indigenous communities — came along in 1992.
The role that was written for her
When Pelly auditioned for — and eventually landed — the role of Elsie Tsa Che on North of 60, a Canadian drama that took place in the fictional town of Lynx River in the Northwest Territories, she inhabited a character that resonated greatly with its audience.
Elsie was a highly respected elder who could communicate her disapproval with a mere look, Rhodes said.
Pelly used to say the role was written for her because of Elsie’s connection to her family and Indigenous culture.
“[Mom] always said that, because they asked her to pick roots and crush berries and take care of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren on the show,” Rhodes said.
“She had few words, but the words that she did speak always hit home with a lot of people on set and a lot of people who watched.”
Legendary figure in Indigenous communities
Pelly was always taken aback by the recognizability the role gave her, Rhodes said, and surprised by the consistent kindness and sweetness of those who watched the show.
But Elsie was a character who seemed to tap into something important for people.
“I think a lot of viewers really related to my mom,” Rhodes said. “I believe a lot of people related to her like she was their Kookum, and all of her teachings on the show, they learned from.” Kookum is the Cree word for grandmother.
That Pelly would become something of a legendary figure among Indigenous communities across Canada was also a meaningful part of her legacy, Rhodes said.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but what it meant for me to see my mom on screen was that there was always people out there who gave other Nations, and other people, a chance,” Rhodes said.
“My mom always believed that timing was important, and she got into the business at the right time, and the right people recognized her talent.”
Last film in post-production
When Pelly wasn’t acting — her last film, Don’t Say Its Name, is currently in post-production — she enjoyed fulfilling relationships with her family, her daughters said.
They would like her to be remembered as a champion traditional dancer, even if she won first place only once.
“She was an excellent mom and a great wife and a super Kookum,” Rhodes said. “‘Believe in yourself,’ she always told us … she raised us right.”
Rest In Peace #WilmaPelly
You were an icon for First Nation indigenous women across North America. Sending my condolences to the family, Cast and crew of the show North of 60 pic.twitter.com/JBiWHfvHmy
Compounding health factors led to Pelly’s death. She leaves behind her husband, two daughters, seven grandchildren and more than 24 great-grandchildren, Pelley said.
She was predeceased by her son, Lionel Episkenew.
“I just know that a lot of people are going to miss her,” Rhodes said.
“When this COVID-19 is history, we are going to have a celebration of life for my mom — and hopefully that includes a Round Dance for [the] anniversary of her journey with the Creator.”