Emily Faries has had a lot of firsts in her life.

She's part of the first generation to be born and raised on a reserve, since before that, her family lived on the land.

As one of 10 children in her family, she was the first to be born in a hospital. Several years later, she was the first person from the James Bay Coast to receive a PhD.

She started school in Moose Factory, at a federal day school which followed the same rules as a residential school.

"So we were really discouraged and punished if we spoke our language," she said. "Because I was a child I just thought that's the way school is supposed to be."

Despite being encouraged to embrace her culture, Faries said she realized early that she loves to learn.

"I always had this yearning to learn and to seek knowledge," she said. Her family took time to teach her traditional values and teachings at home.

At age 13, Faries left her home to go to Ottawa to attend high school. The government helped in setting up a place for her to board with a non-Indigenous family.

"It was very, very difficult though," she said. "The homesickness, the culture shock and just missing family. I cried every night."

Higher education

Faries stuck with it and completed high school. After that, she went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a Bachelor of Education.

She taught in her home community for about 10 years before working on her masters at the University of Toronto. Eventually Faries enrolled and worked on her PhD at the University of Toronto.

"My biggest incentive was to get out of Toronto," she said. "I had to live there to do the classes, comprehensive exams, even setting up with my thesis committee. As soon as I was done all that, I was able to go up north, do my research and begin to write my thesis."

Formal education and traditional teachings

Even though Faries has several degrees, she said she considers her formal education secondary compared to what she learned from her people.

"My real education is the education I got from my grandparents, and my own people," she said.

"The teachings that I got in regards to our connection to our creator, our connection to the land, and everything that we get from the land is seen as gifts."

Now, Faries teaches Indigenous studies courses at the University of Sudbury.

"Teaching is my passion," she said. "[It's] one of my purposes in life."

She still believes in traditional teaching and connecting with her ancestors ways. To do so, she purchased 160 acres of land near Matheson.

"It's become a sacred place of healing," Faries said. "With whatever resources I have … I'll bring people in, resource people, spiritual leaders, traditional healers and we have gatherings there. That has been my life mission. That's what I'm most proud of."