It’s not hard to see the childhood influence on Corrine Tessier’s life and career.
“We were poor as kids – my dad left when I was seven, and my mom had to raise seven kids by herself,” says Tessier.
Despite the hard times, she says her mom never stopped helping others.
“We’d come home and say to mom ‘there’s a guy walking down the alley, looking in garbage cans’,” recalls Tessier.
“She’d go outside, bring them in the house, feed them and sometimes give them shelter.”
Her mother’s lessons in resourcefulness and sharing helped Tessier in her own life. After her first marriage ended, she found herself a young single mom, going to night school. She had to work hard to make ends meet and get her degree in accounting.
Her career afterward has been a unique combination of business acumen and social activism.
In 1995, she founded the Alberta Women’s Enterprise Initiative, helping more than 12,000 women get started in business, nurturing them in the early years of development with information, networking and investment support. Her work with the Initiative got her nominated as one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People of 1999.
As a working board member and consultant for the Immigrant Access Fund Society of Alberta (later picked up as a federal program) she helped design a micro-loan program and best-governance practices for immigrant entrepreneurs.
“I brought a lot of business approaches to non-profits for a good part of my career,” she says. “I have more passion around those causes.”
Tessier’s expertise has taken her to Indonesia, where she helped developed local entrepreneurship, and has had her helping specific projects for organizations as diverse as the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society to the United Church of Canada.
“My husband wishes I had made more money rather than giving it away to causes,” she jokes. “Half of my career has been devoted to social causes. So I ended up, as my husband calls it, bringing in “one more stray dog”.
Tessier and her husband Robert Toews first came to the Arrow Lakes while travelling through B.C. in 1999. Smitten by lakeside property, the couple gradually moved here until it became their permanent home in 2006.
“It was a big change for this city girl,” she says. “I left a big career in the city, and my contacts, to come here to be, well, nobody.”
The “nobody” quickly found a place supporting local organizations in their development plans. A dozen Nakusp organizations have benefited from her business skills, including the Village of Nakusp, Interior Health, Sufferfest, and the Ktunaxa First Nation
Like any newcomer, Tessier has found outsider’s ways of looking at things are sometimes only accepted slowly.
“I’ve been in a number of different meetings with people, all guys working in wood industry,” she recalls. “They don’t want to look you in the eye. They don’t want to hear what you are saying or take you seriously — ‘what’s does this city woman know about forestry?”
There’s no small amount of sexism in the mix too.
“They are gentlemanly, polite, but you can tell they are uncomfortable with you being in their environment,” she says. “You might say something and it is ignored. Then five minutes later a guy repeats it and they say ‘wow, that’s a good idea!’”
But Nakusp and small-town life has captured Tessier and her spouse, and they can’t see themselves living anywhere else.
“I definitely love living here, it has expanded me,” she says. “We’ve learned how to be with neighbours in a different way, how to depend on each other for a lot of stuff.
“There’s something special about having common goals you don’t get in the city. We love the intimacy of going to local events and sharing experiences with others. Everything is just more special.
“And our little hospital. It is the best there is, I swear, in Canada. It is just amazing.”
Tessier says she’s torn between wanting to help develop the local economy, bring good-paying jobs in for young people, and see the town grow to its full potential- and wanting to protect the intimacy and the caring that comes with living in a small community.
But she’s also maybe just getting a little tired.
“In last two years since I retired I’ve said ‘no’ to requests to sit on boards,” she says. “That’s because I’ve done thousands of hours of board work, I needed a rest, a break.”
Tessier has taken up daily meditation, “just letting go”, as she says. For a few hours each day she tries to clear her mind.
“I’ve always been interested in being spiritual, but informally,” she says. “it’s now a huge part of my life. Huge. It means more to me now than anything.”
After a career centred on planning, goals and structures, she’s stripping that all away, to see what’s left”
Tessier takes part in a meditation group that meets regularly in New Denver, and her daily routine includes reading, and working on a novel. In a typical fashion, she took a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Her first draft is done and she’s editing it now.
“I’ve got no grand expectations,” she says. “I just wanted to go through the process see what it’s like to write creatively.”
As she approaches the age she can pick up her first CPP cheque, Tessier finds herself looking for the balance between activism and personal growth, entrepreneurship and spirituality.
“I find it foreign ground, and a lot of retirees may feel the same way,” she says. “You’re entering into a new ground and one can either just escape, which I’ve also done, escape into being distracted. People can be distracted with information, or with business. You can be distracted by substances, drinking or whatever.
“Or you can roust up your courage and face this abyss of not knowing what’s next.”
The hard part of this stage in life is letting go, she says.
“That’s a thing to get used to, letting go of goals and attachments, and embracing this open space, and just letting it flow where it goes,” she says. “It’s a big challenge, but I am embracing it.”