Nova Scotia

'A Woman of Many Firsts': Bust of Mi'kmaw educator Elsie Basque unveiled

Nova Scotia's Université Sainte-Anne has unveiled a bust and space for celebrated Mi'kmaw educator Elsie Basque. 

'She made an impact,' says her daughter as Université Sainte-Anne celebrates activist

The Elsie Basque bust was unveiled Wednesday at Université Sainte-Anne's Louis-R.-Comeau Library. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's Université Sainte-Anne has unveiled a bust and space for celebrated Mi'kmaw educator Elsie Basque. 

The bust was unveiled this week to mark Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

President Allister Surette said Basque's achievements as the first Mi'kmaw person to get a teaching certificate in Nova Scotia and as the first Indigenous person to teach at a non-Indigenous school in the province are part of her legacy. 

"Elsie Basque was born in Hectanooga, not far from here in the Municipality of Clare, someone that had close Acadian ties as well," he said. "We're looking at ways of building relationships with our First Nations, especially our local First Nations here."

Allister Surette, president of Université Sainte-Anne, said the university gave Basque an honorary doctorate in 2005. (CBC)

The bust is displayed in the Elsie Basque Space at the university's Louis-R.-Comeau Library. It was created by artist Kevin P Comeau, who called the clay sculpture A Woman of Many Firsts.

Her daughter, Marcelle Simon, said the expression on her face in the bust can be summed up with one of her favourite phrases: "Well, how about that!"

"She made an impact," Simon told CBC News ahead of the unveiling.

A guide to a better life

Simon's grandfather worked many jobs to provide for his family, including as a guide. That brought the family into contact with wealthy people from big cities, which planted the seed that Elsie Basque could have a different life.

"They lived in the woods. They had no running water. They didn't even have a well — they went to the spring. They lived completely off the land," Simon said.

"He built them a house, but they would camp in the summer and in the spring, and net for salmon. It was a different lifestyle altogether and he wanted something more for her. He always told her to get an education: work with your head, not your hands."

That's why he enrolled his daughter in the Shubenacadie Residential School. She was in Grade 8 when she arrived in 1930 — and still in Grade 8 when she left 28 months later. She switched to the nearby Sacred Heart Academy, where she was treated well and properly educated.

Her daughter said she suffered night terrors from her time at the institution, but it didn't deter her from a passion for education.

Marcelle Simon smiles as she talks about her mother, Elsie Basque. The artist used Simon's face as a starting point in creating the sculpture. (CBC)

Basque later taught at the school. She only had church pews, a box of chalk, and a chalkboard, but that was all she needed to inspire dreams in her Mi'kmaw students.

"They didn't know what they wanted to be. And no one had ever told them they could be anything. So she said, 'Do you want to be a fireman? A policeman?' They didn't know they could do that. And it kind of turned into their mantra: you can be anything you want to be."

Reconciliation will 'take generations'

Basque kept in touch with many of her students and they did indeed go onto to become chiefs, armed forces members, and proud Mi'kmaw people. "She was so proud of all of her students," Simon said.

Basque spent many years in Boston as an advocate and educator on Indigenous issues in the U.S. before returning to Mi'kma'ki/Nova Scotia.

Elsie Basque received several honorary doctorates and was named to the Order of Canada. (Université Sainte-Anne)

Simon said her mother testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, listened to the testimony of others, and read the recommendations.

"It's a hurt that happened through generations and her thoughts were, 'I think it's going to take generations to resolve that.' And I think she's right," said Simon.

Looking at the bust, Simon remembers a family camping trip when she was five. Her mom realized the little girl felt like she was getting in the way as the others raised the tent, so she took her aside and told her she had the most important job: to find the centrepiece that would hold the tent together. 

"She just made everyone feel important," said Simon.

Basque died at 99 in 2016.