Beloved Edmonton elder who dispensed 'culture as medicine' dies of COVID-19

An Edmonton elder and knowledge keeper dedicated to keeping Cree traditions alive for the next generation has died from complications of COVID-19.

'She knew her path in the world. She wanted to keep our culture alive'

Roxanne Tootoosis was an admired mentor and Indigenous knowledge keeper. She died Sunday after contracting COVID-19. (Supplied by family of Roxanne Tootoosis)

An Edmonton elder and knowledge keeper dedicated to keeping Cree traditions alive for the next generation has died from complications of COVID-19.

Relatives of Roxanne Tootoosis say she died alone at home Sunday, less than a week after falling ill with the disease. She was 60.

Tootoosis had called Alberta Health Link on Friday night and was advised by a nurse that she wasn't sick enough to seek care in hospital, according to her daughter Niska Chyan Napoleon. 

"On Friday, I spoke to her very briefly and her voice was very laboured," Napoleon said in an interview Tuesday. 

"She told me when she called the [811] hotline that they told her that she didn't have enough symptoms to go to an emergency."

'Medical conditions can change quickly'

Napoleon said the family isn't planning on filing an official complaint but she wonders if her mother — who had received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine —  would be alive if she had gone to hospital. 

Alberta Health Services said it could not provide details on Tootoosis' case, citing patient confidentiality.

In a statement to CBC News, AHS extended condolences to the family and encouraged them to file their concerns with the agency's patient relations team. 

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said the first step of any Health Link assessment is to ensure any emergency or life-threatening symptoms are ruled out.

"Health Link registered nurses provide advice based on information supplied by the patient at the time of the call," reads the statement.

"As many medical conditions can change quickly, Health Link nurses always insist a patient call back if any of the symptoms change, so they may be reassessed, or that they immediately call 911." 

My mom was double vaccinated, and so we all felt like she was more safe because of that.-Niska Chyan Napoleon

Napoleon said her mother got tested for COVID-19 after attending a sweat last Sunday where another attendee had fallen ill.

Her mother told her on Monday that she had tested positive for the delta variant, Napoleon said. 

Napoleon said her mother's death is a reminder of the risks of COVID-19, even for the immunized. She said people should not hesitate to seek medical care for the disease. 

Her mother had battled various health problems. Her kidney function was low and she had suffered a stroke last year.

"My mom was double vaccinated, and so we all felt like she was more safe because of that," Napoleon said. "I had faith she would pull through." 

Edmonton elder and knowledge keeper dies of COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 1:51
Roxanne Tootoosis, known for keeping Cree traditions alive for the next generation, has died due to complications from the delta variant of COVID-19.

Tootoosis, a proud Plains Cree woman, was an Indigenous advocate who had dedicated her life to sharing her culture. 

She was the first Indigenous knowledge keeper employed by MacEwan University, a role she held for the past four years.

A 'guiding presence'

The university lowered the MacEwan banner and the Métis Nation and Treaty 6 flags in her honour. A celebration of life was held Tuesday on campus. 

MacEwan president Annette Trimbee described Tootoosis as a "guiding presence" on campus.

"She was family to many MacEwan students, who were greatly impacted by her kindness, by her genuine desire to really get to know them, by her gentle teachings, by her mentorship, by her playfulness and by her infectious laughter," Trimbee wrote in a statement.

"Many of us will remember her sharing, 'Know who you are first, and you'll never get lost.'"

Before her work at MacEwan, Tootoosis spent nearly 20 years in social work. She had also completed a one-year clinical residency at the Royal Alexandra Hospital with the program now called the Indigenous Cultural Helper Services program.

She had plans to pursue her master's degree, exploring the history of ribbon skirts as her thesis. 

Napoleon said her mother was a compassionate woman who worked to honour her ancestors through traditional healing. 

Napoleon plans to honour her legacy by learning Cree, writing songs in the language and carrying on the traditions her mother cherished.

"[She was] a compassionate, loving, traditional woman who loved to use culture as medicine," she said. 

"She knew her path in the world ... she wanted to keep our culture alive." 

Her remains will be laid to rest Thursday in Poundmaker Cree Nation near Cut Knife, Sask., her childhood home. 


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.