Friday February 19, 2016

In memoriam: Jo-Ann Episkenew

Jo-Ann Episkenew was an influential educator at the First Nations University of Canada, in Regina.

Jo-Ann Episkenew was an influential educator at the First Nations University of Canada, in Regina. (CBC)

Listen to Full Episode 10:59

Author and educator Jo-Ann Episkenew died at the age of 63 on Thursday. Episkenew was the director of the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre at the University of Regina and author of the book Taking Back Our Spirits. The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers interviewed Episkinew in 2011 and has written a tribute (below):

From Shelagh Rogers:

About six years ago I was grazing at Munro's Books in Victoria when I came across a book by Jo-Ann Episkenew. I started reading and she had me from the first page where she writes of an epiphany, and that epiphany leads to the very last line: "Uncle Louis would be proud." That uncle would be Louis Riel and what he would be proud of was that Indigenous writers were, and are, "taking back our spirits." That was the title of her book and her book led me to a friendship.

I knew I wanted to talk to her on The Next Chapter. She wrote about Indigenous narratives as a source of hope and healing, not only for Indigenous people, but for settler communities as well. And the writing just drew me in. So I made the equivalent of a sales cold-call and introduced myself to her on Facebook. She wrote back a kind note, adding she already knew my "cheerful voice." Then I wrote back to tell her I wasn't always cheerful. Sometimes I could even be a pitbull. She replied, "It will be fun doing an interview, and please be a pitbull if you're so inclined. I'm not afraid. I'm an English teacher." I laughed out loud. Then we got to talking about being women in our 50s and how "amazing" it was to have the ability to forget simple nouns, though not so great on live radio. I told her we would be recording and my wonderful producer Jacqueline Kirk would edit any gaffes. We both declared we wanted her as an editor for our lives.

We did record a conversation. It was in the home of the author Amy-Jo Ehman and it's posted here. You could call this our "first date," first time face to face after some lengthy and personal emails. Perhaps it sounds a little tentative. However, you will hear her passion and fierce intelligence. And I hope it will inspire you to read Taking Back Our Spirits. The damage done through Canada's colonial policies needs to be recognized, acknowledged, understood and heard. Books like Jo-Ann's help and teach. She understood that Canada will be made uncomfortable having its mythology kicked in the head, and indeed, I felt the bracing fresh wind of truth as I read her book.

Jo-Ann Episkenew was a fabulous woman. She was an inspiration to her colleagues of all ages, and had a gift of making you feel as though you had known her forever. She died early Thursday morning, February 18, from organ failure due to pneumonia. My sympathy to her large family, her circle of friends and to all who knew her. RIP Jo-Ann.