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On her own terms

After tragedy ripped her family apart, Patricia Chareka built a life for herself based on hard work, resilience, and creativity

By Janice Hudson

Photography by Patrick Fulgencio

 

Patricia Chareka is used to strangers knowing about her life as soon as they hear her last name.

In March 2011, four days before Patricia’s sixteenth birthday, her father Patrick murdered her mother Ottilia in their Antigonish home. “It caused quite a stir in Nova Scotia,” Patricia recalls. “Things like this don’t happen often. And where my parents held the professions that they did, it was a very unusual circumstance.”

Ottilia and Patrick were professors at St. Francis Xavier University. They immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe in the early 1990s. “My father had been able to get his PhD and he came to Canada first,” Patricia says. “My mother’s credentials weren’t accepted here when she wanted to start teaching.”

In the 2010 short documentary Familiar Stranger by Antigonish filmmaker Cara Jones, Ottilia notes that she was the first woman in her clan to complete high school. Her father had refused to pay her tuition because she was a girl, so she worked to pay her school fees. She went on to graduate from teacher’s college.

But with her Zimbabwean teaching credentials refused in Canada, Ottilia had to start her university education from scratch. That meant cleaning hotel rooms in Fredericton to pay her tuition for the University of New Brunswick. “She worked part-time at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel in Fredericton,” says Patricia. Ottilia earned undergraduate and master’s degrees and then returned to Zimbabwe to teach for a time, returning to Canada in 2001 to complete her PhD.

At the time of her death, Ottilia was a tenured associate professor in the education faculty at St. FX. She taught courses in the Bachelor of Education and Master of Education programs, and helped spearhead the part-time Bachelor of Education program for black Nova Scotian learners and the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey school improvement program.

Patrick worked sporadically at St. FX as a math and statistics professor. He was eventually charged with second-degree murder for her death and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 13 years.

“Not every family is necessarily the perfect family that you see from the outside,” Patricia says. “There’s always more [going on] behind closed doors, and that was definitely true of my family.”

Following her mother’s death, Patricia and her four sisters, then ranging in age from 3 to 23, split up. The three youngest sisters, including Patricia who is the middle child, went into foster care, while the two eldest continued their post-secondary studies.

“It was difficult,” says Patricia, who is now 22. “I look back and think, it’s already been six years since that happened and it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It feels like it could have been just a month ago.”

Patricia and her youngest sister, Prisca, went to live with an aunt in Saint John, New Brunswick. “It was difficult adapting because my parents’ form of parenting was very different than theirs,” she says.

But starting Grade 10 in Saint John High School was a turning point in Patricia’s life. “I decided not to let what had happened define me,” she says. “My mentality going in was just that I wanted to do big things.”

She became student-union president, helping her develop leadership skills. “It opened up a lot of doors for me,” she says. “I met fantastic people, including the former premier of New Brunswick, Frank McKenna, and the former lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis. That position allowed me to be able to become a better public speaker and address larger audiences.”

Patricia’s parents passed along a love of learning to their daughters. “When I was younger, my sisters and I were always very academically inclined,” Patricia says. “I’d gone to a math camp at Dalhousie when I was younger and the staff just seemed really wonderful. I knew they had a lot of programs dedicated to African Nova Scotians and that was a big thing for me.”

She applied to Dalhousie University as an International Baccalaureate student, receiving early acceptance and a scholarship. She’s been at Dalhousie since 2014 pursuing a commerce degree, which she plans to finish next year.

In the co-op program, she’s able to explore different careers every six months. It’s led to her current full-time job as a creative executive assistant for Chelsea LeFort, a real-estate agent in Lower Sackville.

Patricia assists with sales, marketing, and social media, and enjoys helping clients choose the design elements for their new homes. “She’s super passionate about design,” says LeFort. “It’s fun to watch her appreciate the design process and watch her learn more about how it all comes together. She is able to tap into what the clients are seeing and thinking when it comes to design, which helps me serve them better.”

Real estate has been a natural fit for Patricia. “To me, having a home is such an important thing and it’s something I hope everyone has,” she says. “When I get to hold open houses or we’re showing different locations, I love picturing what family is going to live here, what experiences are they going to have. That’s what I really love about my job.”

Real estate is also giving Patricia experience for a future project. “I want to one day own income property that will serve as housing for students and youth who are in care, like I was, who choose to pursue post-secondary education,” she says. “So that they can still have housing that’s comfortable and designed well…It was a big thing for me and for my sisters. I feel like that should be available to other people.”

Currently, foster children can apply for a bursary from Social Services that helps with additional expenses in addition to housing costs. “But with the cost of tuition in addition to housing, it’s quite steep for a lot of people,” Patricia says.

She thinks her idea could become a team effort involving Social Services, Dalhousie University, and her contacts in real estate and construction. “It could provide housing that’s more affordable than what’s out there now but that meets the standard of living everyone should have,” she says.

Janeen Johnson is a long-time friend who met Patricia at church in Antigonish back in 2009. She admires Patricia’s resolve to tackle any project. “Anything that Patricia accomplishes, she looks for solutions and not problems,” says Johnson. “It’s what her parents instilled in her—their work ethic, their life lessons, and the hardships they overcame. She’s been able to take it and say, ‘this is how success works. You take the good, the bad, and you just keep going.’”

Patricia is also exploring another passion: blogging and fashion. Since 2015, she’s had her own fashion and style blog (patriciachareka.com). “My website and my blog actually started as a hobby,” she says. “I was on social media and had posted a photograph of me wearing outfits from a specific store.”

Store staff noticed, sent her a gift card encouraging her to keep it up, and a style feature with Halifax Shopping Centre soon followed. The work has kept coming from there. “It’s still in the early stages, but I get to create content that will inspire other people with what I’m doing and give people a look at different ways to style fashion in Halifax,” says Patricia.

For her, fashion levels the playing field. “When you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve gone through, but how they represent themselves is crucial to the first impression that you have,” she says. “I want my style to be something that people look at and have a positive impression of how they see me. It doesn’t matter what my history is or where I’ve been.”

The blog is also a way to inspire others. “[They] can see my history and the steps I’ve taken to make sure that my future wasn’t deterred by the circumstances that I faced in the past,” she says. “When my sisters and I were initially placed in foster care, people assumed our future might not be the best. And where we are African Nova Scotians, so there are different setbacks that come with that as well.”

Keeping the sisters together while living in different provinces is hard. Patricia’s oldest sister, Missy, is currently studying law at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. “She became the mother figure for us, making sure we were all staying in school,” says Patricia.

Twenty-year-old sister Primrose is studying computer­­­ engineering at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. “I joke that she’s the smart one of the family,” laughs Patricia. “She’s been getting straight A’s since her first year and she’s been hired full-time for the summer for a company out west that specializes in computer engineering.”

Patricia is enjoying spending time with her 24-year-old sister, Patience, who is in Halifax studying business administration. “I’m happy with the strides that my sisters and I have taken,” Patricia adds.

For Patricia, moving forward means finding inspiration in the past. “When I look at my mother, nobody else in her family even had the chance to go to university,” she says. “She was the first one and she was able to do that living fairly close to poverty. Aside from the personal issues that my parents had, the one thing that they did well was instill in us the same values that they had to persevere, to be resilient, and to keep going. I want to take advantage of the opportunity that they gave to us.”

CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, Patricia Chareka’s name was misspelled in the print edition of this story. The story above has been corrected. My Halifax Experience regrets the error.