How often do we call someone a warrior? We often use “warrior” to describe someone who’s done something difficult or has overcome incredible obstacles. How many times have you had the privilege of calling someone a warrior? I had such an opportunity last week when I met with Norma Condo. Hers is an extraordinary story. In spite of facing huge obstacles, she persevered and reached her dream of becoming an Indigenous chef. Norma is not just a warrior. She is a Native woman warrior.
For years, Norma dreamed of becoming an Indigenous chef. At the time she was living in the US with her husband and children. In 2016, Norma came across a pamphlet from Pearson School of Culinary Arts (PSCA). Reading it, she realized that the Professional Cooking program was exactly what she needed to take to follow her dream. She called to book an appointment for an interview. Since she was living so far, she was given the opportunity to have a phone interview. “I wanted to have a face to face interview,” said Norma. So, she and her husband drove 9 hours to LaSalle so she could attend the interview.
A new beginning and tragedy strikes
Once her acceptance was confirmed, Norma made a second trip so she could find an apartment near school. She found an apartment and moved her five children as her husband wrapped up their life in Connecticut to prepare for the move to Montreal. Life was unfolding as it should. Then, tragedy struck. Harold, Norma’s husband, died unexpectedly one month before she started school. Norma decided to start her studies in spite of feeling grief stricken by her husband’s death. “I nearly quit school many times. I had to keep reminding myself that I wanted to do this. I had to be strong for my kids.”
Returning to school many years after finishing her studies, dealing with her husband’s death, raising her children, and living in a new/unfamiliar city was overwhelming. Focusing on school was particularly difficult. At times, Norma would leave the classroom frustrated with herself.
Support from teachers
She finally confided in her teachers. “I couldn’t have made it through without my teachers’ support,” said Norma. Nancy Gagnon and Eric Gregor-Pearse, chef instructors at PSCA, both admired Norma’s perseverance, work ethic and professionalism as she completed her course. According to Ms. Gagnon, “Norma’s experience was a rollercoaster ride and she came through with flying colours. She’s remarkable on so many levels.” Added Mr. Gregor-Pearse, “We all saw incredible potential in Norma. We believed in her. Our objective was to get her to believe in herself.”
While she was studying in the Professional Cooking course, Norma received a call from Aboriginal Tourism Québec. Norma was invited to participate in the Rencontre des Grands Chefs. This prestigious event, held at Chateau Frontenac in Québec City, allows visitors the opportunity to discover the eleven Indigenous Nations of Quebec through their gastronomy. Norma has twice participated and represented the Miqmak nation. She also participated in the event’s promotional video.
After finishing the program, Norma decided to take the advanced cooking program, Market Fresh Cuisine. She knew that she would need to learn the more advanced topics if she was going to be to follow her dream. Her experience in this program was invaluable in teaching her how to create menus. She recently applied this new knowledge when she was asked to cater an Indigenous food event in Gaspésie. Norma created a fall menu which she will be serving to 250 people in her community.
Giving back to the community
One of Norma’s biggest motivators is giving back to the community. She feel strongly that she needs to use her voice to encourage and support the Indigenous community. From speaking to local organizations, to encouraging native women to pursue their dreams, Norma is committed to helping others. Her message to others? “Anything is possible. Keep your mind focused. Go after what you want. Don’t give up.”
In the last two years, Norma has had some exceptional experiences. She met and befriended Montreal Chef Chuck Hughes. Mr. Hughes has been very supportive of Norma’s career. She was also approached by a TV network who is interested in creating an indigenous cooking show. The show is in the process of being developed.
What does the future hold?
In January, Norma is returning to PSCA to take the Butchery program. Norma’s community does not have a butcher and she wants to learn how to help her neighbours butcher the animals they hunt. She wants to teach community members how to butcher.
In the long term, Norma’s dream is to open an Indigenous restaurant in her Gaspésie community. She wants to give back to her community and share what she has learned.
As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Norma to tell me about some of her tattoos. One tattoo is in honour of her late husband. Another one, with five arrows, symbolizes her children: Leah, Nathan, Nevaeh, Quanna, and Quonsett. I asked about the woman tattoo on her arm. “That’s a Native woman warrior. After everything I’ve gone through, I consider myself a warrior,” said Norma. That you are Norma. A true warrior. We know that the future holds many great adventures for you.