'Sister steamroller': Former Fort Smith advocate for seniors, women remembered

Sister Agnes Sutherland, who founded the N.W.T.’s first women’s shelter, died earlier this month at the age of 92.

Sister Agnes Sutherland died earlier this month at the age of 92

Sister Agnes Sutherland, known to some as 'Sister steamroller,' was a tireless advocate for N.W.T. seniors and others in need. She died earlier this month, at the age of 92. (CBC)

When Gilles Paquin tells people about his friend, Sister Agnes Sutherland, he likes to tell them the story of the snow plows coming around to clear the streets of Fort Smith in the winter.

Although the plows would clear the snow from the roads, they would leave new piles of it in front of elders' homes in the process. That meant seniors couldn't get in or out of their homes — and that didn't sit well with Sutherland.

"So she would put [on] her boots and her coat and march down to the town hall and ordered — she didn't demand — ordered them to go and shovel those pieces," said Paquin.

Sutherland died Aug. 10 in St. Albert, Alta., at the age of 92. She was a longtime resident of Fort Smith, N.W.T., and was known for going out of her way to help people in need. She joined the Grey Nuns in 1943, according to her obituary. 

Sister Sutherland 'always had a sparkle in her eyes,' said Barb Hood, former head of the N.W.T. Seniors' Society. 'She was quiet ... but people revered her.' (Submitted by NWT Seniors' Society )

She created Sutherland House, the first women's shelter in the N.W.T., and was an educator for many years. She was also involved in the Roman Catholic diocese in Fort Smith, worked for the Status of Women Council of the N.W.T., and was a strong advocate for seniors and people with disabilities.

"She was absolutely wonderful to know, and she would go all the way to help people," said Paquin, the business manager at the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Roman Catholic Diocese.

When Paquin first moved to Fort Smith, he and his family were homeless for a short time, he said. Sutherland took his family in, like she did for many people, giving them a place to stay at the town's old hospital.

"At the same time, if she had something to tell you, if you were kind of stepping out of line on stuff, she wasn't afraid to take you on," Paquin said.

'There was no stopping her'

Many people who knew her said that when Sutherland saw a problem, she tackled it head on.

"The bishop used to call her sister steamroller because ... when she saw a need, she was going to do something about it and there was no stopping her," said Lynn Brooks, who helped Sutherland as she was getting her shelter for women up and running in Fort Smith.

"She was this tiny little woman and she was this dynamo."

Sutherland, second from left, founded the territory's first women's shelter. She was also involved in the Roman Catholic diocese in Fort Smith and worked for the N.W.T.'s Status of Women Council. (Submitted by NWT Seniors' Society )

Brooks, who used to work for the YWCA, said Sutherland House filled an "essential"  need for women and children not only in Fort Smith, but in surrounding communities.

Sutherland also tried to bridge the gap between seniors and younger generations.

Barb Hood, former head of the N.W.T. Seniors' Society, remembers Sutherland giving workshops about elder abuse in communities around the territory.

The society eventually created an award in Sutherland's honour, to recognize work in the area of educating and bringing elder abuse to light.

To many people, including Hood, she was also a friend. Hood said people in Fort Smith missed her deeply when she eventually moved away from Fort Smith.

"She always had a sparkle in her eyes," said Hood. "She was quiet … but people revered her and they were always affected by her presence."


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