Kanesatake’s Brenda Gabriel died Friday afternoon after a tumultuous four-year battle with leukemia.
The mother of two began practicing karate in her late thirties and won two gold medals for Canada at two world championships.
Gabriel also devoted her time in her career as a youth protection worker in Kahnawake.
Her sister, Wanda Gabriel, remembers her as determined and courageous.
“She was a true warrior. A true warrior in the sense of the humble way, in the traditional way,” Wanda said.
She says Gabriel drew strength from her Mohawk heritage. She loved traditional singing and drumming, delved into beadwork while in hospital.
“Her cultural identity gave her a lot of strength, and grounding.”
All or nothing
Gabriel’s interest in karate began while watching one of her two sons taking classes. She decided to give the sport a shot and discovered a natural ability.
“When she decided to do something, it was all or nothing,” said Wanda. “[If] she decided to become successful at something, she did.”
She was a formidable opponent, according to people who knew her. Gabriel’s karate instructor Guy Angell described her power as “explosive.”
Ten years after beginning karate, Gabriel was diagnosed with leukemia. She underwent four rounds of chemotherapy before beginning a difficult path to recovery.
“I would take a walk with my dogs, and I would be in pain after, because my muscles had atrophied and my joints were dry. Everything hurt,” Gabriel said in 2013.
She was pronounced cancer free and returned to training before heading to the biggest competition of her life: the 2013 world karate championships in Greece.
Speaking just before the competition, Gabriel said that she wasn’t going to let the disease stop her from doing the things she wanted to do.
“I figured I still have things to do here,” she said at the time. “Like competing at the world championships and making sure my sons grow up.”
Gabriel went on to win gold medals for Canada in Greece and London in 2013 and 2014.
‘She taught us what true strength is’
Steve Bonspiel, the newspaper editor and publisher of Kahnawake’s the Eastern Door, took to Facebook Saturday morning to share his condolences, after spending years reporting on Gabriel’s achievements.
“Through her battles with leukemia she taught us what true strength is. She taught us to fight and to never give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds,” Bonspiel wrote