Fisher River native an active voice in indigenous education

Verna Kirkness wanted to go to school before she was even allowed to do so. Now the longtime aboriginal educator has written a new book about her experiences, which launches on Oct 10.

Verna Kirkness launches book about her experiences Oct. 10

Verna Kirness spent her career developing Indigenous education. (Ian McCausland)

Verna Kirkness wanted to go to school before she was even allowed to do so. Teachers on her reserve actually had to send her home. 

"I loved school right from the very beginning," she said. "We lived right next door to the school on the reserve at Fisher River and I could see the children going to school."

In first grade, she translated the nursery rhymes they learned into Cree, much to the amusement of her mother. There was no aboriginal content in the schools in those days.

"From then on, I enjoyed school and my whole dream was to be a teacher, that was the ultimate," she said.

Kirkness achieved her dream and so much more. She even won an Aboriginal Achievement Award for her work in 1994.

Now, she has written a new book about her experience, which launches on Oct 10.

Kirkness was active in a number of capacities in education through her career. In the 1970s, she worked with the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood — now known as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs — and as education director for the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations, in helping to develop a national policy of Indian Control of Indian Education.

"I became aware that there was nothing really pertaining to our people in the school," she said.

One of the things she did was launch a language immersion program in several Manitoba schools, in which students were taught in the native language.

"Also in social studies, I wanted a truer history to be spoken of because our ancestors did make great contributions to the development of this country," she said.

Kirkness said she believes it is important for aboriginal students to hear their own stories.

"It's my belief that you have to know who you are and our children have to know who they are," she said.

"Language is a very important part of that and also knowing your history, knowing the contributions of your people, knowing the positive things, reading the storybooks that include aboriginal people."

Today she sees so many more aboriginal high school graduates and many more people in colleges and universities.

"I think a lot of that is attributable to the recognition in the curriculum of our people, giving them the proper place in history," she said.

Verna Kirkness's book, Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education, launches at McNally Robinson Booksellers October 10th at 7:00 p.m.


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