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Canada's 'Pocahontas' Theresa Ducharme is a powerhouse

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - Fashion model, student, TV producer, modeling agency owner, mom, world-class fancy dancer, psychotherapist, health counselor. Those are just some of the things Theresa Ducharme has been and done so far. And no, she hasn't crammed all this into 100 years of living. She's barely pushing 37.

Some may say Ducharme has lead a charmed life. And to some extent that's true. On the fast track ever since she became a fashion model for Lee jeans and Sears at 14, Ducharme has moved rapidly through many careers, each reflecting different stages of her own personal growth. But her life hasn't been handed to her on a silver platter. She has earned it every step of the way.

Born a Metis in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ducharme's father was Cree-Ojibwe, her mother Ukranian. A victim of the residential school system in Canada growing up, her father was a severe alcoholic and highly abusive - a situation that was to affect Ducharme for many years. A self-professed tomboy and wild child growing up, her teen-age modeling career - which she fell into - was a blessing. It simultaneously settled her down while giving her a tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity.

"I was making $25 an hour in the '70s, which is a lot of money for a 15 year-old," she recalled. "I was doing the whole disco thing at 15, and modeling and it was kind of an unusual life. But the modeling really helped me personally with self-esteem and gave me the feeling, like, I can do anything."

She pursued modeling until her early 20s. By that time she was also a mother of two and on the verge of a divorce from her Chinese husband. Despite the economic advantages of sticking with what she knew, Ducharme decided to go back to school and study anthropology at the University of Alberta. It was a rough time, working her way through school while raising two little children alone.

But then she found a new passion in life. Her years modeling had given her a fascination with television. Despite the fact that she had no experience in the field, she set her sights on becoming a TV director and producer.

"When you want to do something, the universe comes together and helps you if you really focus," she says.

With $200 to her name, Ducharme put an ad in the local paper "looking for models," and produced her first TV show, complete with music and animation. "It was called the 'Tackiest Fashion Show That Canada's Ever Had.'" She laughs. "But I was so happy. Just because I did it. It didn't matter whether it was bad or good. It was just the fact that I did it."

Ducharme kept directing and producing shows, getting a fair amount of media exposure along the way. Soon she was being touted as a hot shot Native producer, running a Native modeling agency. The next thing she knew, Native parents were sending her their kids from all over Canada to handle. For a couple of years she traveled all over the country, running an agency, while at the same time serving as an excellent role model for young Native children. Both were jobs that "thrilled" her.

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While still in her early 20s, Canadian television did a biography on her. The next thing she knew, a representative from the government office of International Trade and Foreign Affairs came calling, asking her whether she had a Native dance troupe.

"For some reason I said, 'Yes I do.' I didn't, but I said I did. I don't know why. The first thing I know, it took me on a whole other career change."

Learning fancy dancing from an uncle, Ducharme started a career as a traditional dancer. She organized a dance troupe called the Eagle Drum Group and soon was traveling and performing at the behest of the Canadian government. Jokingly in private, calling herself the "Pocahontas for Canada," Ducharme led the Eagle Drum Group to China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, Australia, Mexico and many other countries. She even sent a dance group to perform for the Dalai Lama in exile in Dharamsala, India.

"It took on its own life form," Ducharme said. "And again, I just felt like I was just the messenger, going with the flow. Sometimes I wanted to hide under my bed. But it was just a matter of having faith."

By the time she was 29, her faith had run out and the flow had washed her up on a beach in Japan. Burned out and exhausted, Ducharme no longer knew who she was or why she was doing what she was doing. Leaving her children with close relatives in Canada, she spent several months in a primitive Japanese cottage on the coast, reflecting on her life, writing, crying - in general looking within, trying to find a new center and purpose to her life.

Given the choice to move to Australia or Canada, she returned to Canada, feeling, somehow, that she had not finished her work with her own Native people. She moved to Vancouver, B.C., and got a job with the coastal Tsawwassen Nation as cultural director - a big stretch for a Metis from the prairie.

But some things were the same wherever she went in Indian country. Native children still suffered from child abuse, alcoholism was rampant, lack of self-esteem epidemic. Deeply moved and able to relate to all these problems, Ducharme went back to school and earned certification in reality therapy. A form of counseling that focuses the individual on present needs rather than dwelling in the past, it taught Ducharme how to let go of old "stuff" and become self-empowered. Passing on her new knowledge became her greatest joy.

"I wasn't exempt from pain," she says. "And that's how I did my own personal healing. ... Counseling can go on for years. But with that technique I was able to heal and say to others 'you can come to me about four or five times, and after that you don't need me anymore. Just rely on yourself and having these tools.'"

Not surprisingly, Ducharme's own need for personal growth took her out of individual counseling as a profession and led her further into the health field. Today, combining her media experience with her years in healing, she heads up a national campaign to fight diabetes among the Native peoples in Canada. With more than 20 percent of the Native population affected by diabetes, it is a daunting task. But it is also a task with heart - something Ducharme never resists.

"I'm out there to share," she says. "I'm really proud of who I am. I'm really proud of where I came from. And even though it's been destructive, there was a lot of beauty. And I'm going to keep bringing that forward. Always."