Q&A: Canada's $1M teacher on how she won and what she'll do with the money

A day after winning a $1 million teaching prize, Maggie MacDonnell spoke with Quebec AM about her experiencing teaching in Salluit, Que., and her hopes for the future.

Maggie MacDonnell honoured for her work in Salluit, Que., with coveted Global Teacher Prize

Maggie MacDonnell received the Global Teacher Prize in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Sunday. (Martin Dokoupil/Associated Press)

Maggie MacDonnell has travelled the globe working as a teacher, with stints in Botswana, Tanzania and Congo. 

But it was her seven-year experience in Salluit, Que., the province's second most northern community, that landed her a coveted $1-million Global Teacher Prize.

MacDonnell, who was born in Afton, N.S., said she believes the challenges facing the Inuit community resonated with the selection committee of the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation.

As a teacher, MacDonnell helped set up a fitness centre, a community kitchen and a second-hand store that benefited not only her students but also the general population.

Salluit, which has a population of 1,450, witnessed six suicides in 2015, all affecting young males between the ages of 18 and 25.

MacDonnell is currently on leave from her teaching position and is working at a school board in Kuujjuaq promoting healthy living in Nunavik communities.

She beat out about 20,000 applicants from around the world. She travelled to Dubai with some of her students for the ceremony.

A day after the win, MacDonnell spoke with Quebec AM host Susan Campbell about her experiencing teaching in Salluit and her hopes for the future. 

Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How does it feel?

MacDonnell received the prize from Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. (Martin Dokoupil/Associated Press)

It's an absolute honour. It leaves you a bit speechless to know that you've been recognized in this way. Teachers, we're just public servants in Canada, and we're pretty humble, regular folk. But the Varkey Foundation has done an incredible job of creating this platform to really celebrate teachers and I just feel so lucky to have fallen into their hands.

What do you think resonated about your experience?

MacDonnell, seen here with some of her students, set up a fitness centre while teaching in Salluit. (Handout/Canadian Press)

I think it's the context of where I'm from. I think it's a dramatic story, the Indigenous stories that are in Canada, especially in a place like Salluit. They really grab your heart, because you see kids dealing with dramatic issues and having to be so resilient to overcome them.

What was the most important contribution during your time in Salluit?

Maggie MacDonnell (left) helped build a fitness centre in Salluit, Que. above the local arena to give runners such as Mary Pootoo (right) a place to train. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

That's a good question. I don't know if I can distil it down to one thing, but definitely through this process I was really touched because a lot of kids, I knew I was close to, but I didn't know I had such an impact on her life. One student said if it wasn't for me she wouldn't have gone to college. She is already accepted into a program where I believe she will be the first certified Inuk dental assistant. Others have become role models or gone on to promote healthy lifestyles at the regional level after working on the fitness centre. You're planting little seeds each time, and they'll blossom at some point.

Why was it important for students to join you in Dubai? 

MacDonell (second from left) and students (left to right) Samantha Leclerc, Lucasie Amamatuak and Larry Thomassie pose in Montreal before travelling to Dubai. (Kativik School Board)

Once I knew I could bring them to Dubai, I was absolutely content. I think the reason I made it so far in this nomination process is because I have such a good relationship with my students. But I felt they needed to be there to account for that relationship. They've been having a phenomenal time. They've been meeting people from all over the world, going to workshops as well as visiting the area.

What will you do with the $1 million?

The award was established three years ago by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation. (Varkey Foundation)

I'll be consulting with the Varkey Foundation. But my dream would be to start an NGO with my students that could focus on bringing back the culture of kayaking to the community, but through a means of environmental stewardship and youth engagement. That's where we're going to start. But what I love about projects is that things really unfold in beautiful ways once you get momentum.


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