(L-R) Sandra Ahenakew, Verla Chatsis, Deborah Chatsis and Brian Chatsis, when Deborah received her Honorary Doctor of Laws from USask in 2015. 

Never far from home

USask alumna travelled the world in the foreign service, but will always be remembered at USask through scholarship

By John Grainger

She may have travelled to and worked in many countries around the globe, but Deborah Chatsis (BE’83, LLB'86, LLD’15) always kept her family top of mind, despite the great distances apart.

Verla, Deborah’s older sister, said despite the many paths her sister embarked on throughout her career in the Canadian Foreign Service and as an ambassador, one path always led her home to Prince Albert.

(L-R) Sisters Sandra Ahenakew, Verla Chatsis and Deborah Chatsis

“She never forgot her roots and I think that’s an important thing about her,” says Verla (BA’84, BSP’85), about Deborah, who passed away in June.

“We grew up on the west flat of Prince Albert which was known as a poorer section back then,” says Verla, who spent 30 years working as a pharmacist for Alberta Health Services in Edmonton before returning to Prince Albert.

“But that’s where we grew up. We were not children of privilege.”

However, Verla recalls her sister had a bright mind and was very determined, focused and always wanted to do something important with her life.

“She was quite humble, never spoke about herself, never tooted her own horn.”

A distinguished career

Deborah had a distinguished career which all started back at USask which led her around the globe culminating as Canada’s first female Indigenous ambassador with postings in Vietnam and then Guatemala.

Along the way, Deborah, who received the Order of Canada early in 2022, was posted in cities such as Beijing, New York City, Geneva as well as Kandahar, Afghanistan among others.

For that award, she was cited “for her leadership as the first member of a First Nation to serve as ambassador for Canada, and for her advocacy of human rights around the globe.”

(L-R) Deborah Chatsis and Verla Chatsis

The family’s bonds were tightened around breast cancer diagnoses that Verla, Deborah, and sister Sandra all endured, including their mother, who eventually passed away from ovarian cancer.

“Our cancer journey really did draw us together. Adversity and life experiences really did keep us together and you realize the importance of family.

“Deborah was very good about staying in touch with the family, connecting with us when she was overseas and making sure she could at least get home for Christmas,” says Verla.

One of those paths not forgotten by Deborah was the one which led to the University of Saskatchewan.

Gift of education

The gift of education was something very important to her, and it was Deborah’s parents who encouraged her educational pursuit and those of her siblings. This is why Deborah was driven to create the Chatsis Family Award, which provides support for Indigenous undergraduate students in a degree program in the College of Engineering, the College of Law or the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition.

“My parents really valued education and really supported us to go to university,” recalls Verla. “Deborah received so much through her education at the U of S and I think she really wanted to make sure others had the opportunity to achieve their university education opportunities and goals.”

As well, their first cousin is Blaine Favel, former USask chancellor, urged them to consider creating a scholarship.

“He really encouraged Deborah, and myself, to think about giving back in some fashion.”

In fact, many friends and supporters have already stepped up to support the Chatsis Family Award.

Verla’s experience while a USask student was something she still appreciates.

“Faculty was supportive, they knew your name. I preferred to be in the back of the class, but it didn’t matter. They knew who you were.”

Verla and Deborah lived at St. Andrew’s College while on campus and enjoyed the life there.

“We made a lot of friends that we are still friends with after all these years. But for both of us, it was a very positive experience being in university because you find your people, people with matching goals, with similar interests.”

Verla knows Indigenous students will often find life on campus difficult.

“It’s easy to get lost in a big college and if they are from the north, or from a reserve, all of a sudden you’re just thrust into this whole new environment and if you’re not with anyone coaching you along, it can be difficult.”

For Deborah and Verla, it was finding the right path, and that path always took them home together.

To support the Chatsis Family Award, please go to https://donate.usask.ca/online/Chatsis