Community mourns beloved Cree educator, leader and 'truth teller'

Former Blue Quills University president, Vincent Steinhauer was instrumental in creating Canada’s first Indigenous-led post-secondary institution.

Former Blue Quills University president taught with ‘kindness, love and honesty’

Vincent Steinhauer, former president of Blue Quills University in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, died earlier this week at age 54. (Patricia Makokis)

An instrumental educator from Canada's first Indigenous-led post-secondary institution is being remembered as a dedicated teacher and "truth teller."

Vincent Steinhauer died Monday of a sudden heart attack at his home in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, the northern Alberta community where he grew up.

He was 54.

Before his death, Steinhauer was in the process of developing a grant-funded film about treaty rights, working along with his sister, Diana.

Steinhauer became the president of Blue Quills University in 2012, when it was a college. The school outside St. Paul, Alta., is owned and operated by Indigenous people. The university is on the same site as a former residential school many of Steinhauer's own family members attended.

Steinhauer told CBC in a 2014 interview that he welled up with pride reflecting on how the community had transformed the school.

"When my eyes light up, it is from the generations of vision it took to get to this space we are in right now, and move it forward so our children can learn our own identity."

During his time as Blue Quills president, Steinhauer became a founding member of the First Nations Adult and Higher Education Consortium, an initiative that promotes and fosters Indigenous education around the world.

Patricia Makokis, a previous Blue Quills president, said she started working with Steinhauer nearly 20 years ago at a treatment centre for youth. She said his teachings drew not only on his own research (he earned a PhD from Blue Quills in Indigenous governance), but also on generations of traditional knowledge.

"He had the academic training, but few people have what he had in terms of the ceremonial — the Indigenous knowledge training," she told CBC's Radio Active on Thursday.

"[It meant that] he had essentially two PhDs, and he threaded it together [with] kindness and love and honesty, and he shared it with everybody."

Her son, Dr. James Makokis, said Steinhauer also worked as an instructor at Yellowhead Tribal College and reconnected a younger generation with ceremonies many of them had lost.

"He impacted the lives of many people by bringing them closer to understanding who they are as Indigenous people, and in doing so made them healthier, made their families healthier, and made their nations healthier," he said.

Patricia Makokis said Steinhauer's legacy will carry on through his family.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and four sons.

"Already I've seen some of his children stepping into the ceremony," she said.

Makokis said Steinhauer had his leg amputated from complications with diabetes, and she recently saw his  son help him enter a sweat lodge.

"His son would literally take him out of the wheelchair, lift him down onto the ground and help him get into that sweat lodge, where we would all crawl in ... pray and sing together, and continue that cycle of life and ceremony together, young and old together," she said.

He had the academic training, but few people have what he had in terms of the ceremonial — the Indigenous knowledge training.- Patricia Makokis

His children are continuing traditions just as Steinhauer carried on the legacy of his own father, she said.  

"His late father, Mike said, 'Let us live the life the Creator meant for us to live,' and Vincent lived that life; he lived it every day," said Makokis.

"He was a truth teller. And being a truth teller, sometimes it's hard for people to hear that truth: the colonized story — the trauma story — but [it was] always with love and kindness in those teachings. And he was well respected across this land for knowledge, because it took him a lifetime to learn what he had."