Family, colleagues mourn much-loved teacher believed to be 1st Sask. educator lost to COVID-19

Victor Thunderchild, who died Saturday, worked at Prince Albert's Carlton Comprehensive High School for 29 years.

Victor Thunderchild, who died Saturday, worked at Prince Albert's Carlton Comprehensive for 29 years

Violet and Victor Thunderchild. Violet says her husband is being remembered as a man who overcame racism throughout his life to become a teacher, using education to help others in his community. (Violet Thunderchild/Facebook)

Victor Thunderchild stared down and overcame racism and stereotypes as he pursued his dream to become an educator.

Working at the Carlton Comprehensive High School in Prince Albert, Sask., the 55-year-old was passionate about teaching future generations and allowing them to thrive.

On Saturday morning, that work was cut short, when Victor died as a result of COVID-19.

Now, his family is calling on the provincial government to ensure teachers are vaccinated to ensure no other family, or community, experiences the loss of someone who cared so much about so many.

"Everywhere I turn, he taught somebody," said his wife, Violet Thunderchild.

Students of Victor's went on to be doctors, lawyers and dentists, she said, noting some of the nurses who cared for him in the hospital in his final hours were past students of his.

"He did make a really big difference in this community," she said. 

She says Victor, a champion of the Cree language and a proud Plains Cree man, was set to retire in 2022, but she said his work was far from over, as he wanted to continue teaching after his retirement. 

An intergenerational survivor of Canada's residential school system, Victor was a man who came from humble beginnings and the youngest of 12 children, Violet said. But through his work and dedication, he became the first person in his family to get a university degree, going on to earn a master's and use his education to help others. 

"He walked what he talked," she said of her husband of 33 years, stressing he was healthy before contracting COVID-19 and had no underlying health conditions. His family believes that he contracted COVID-19 while working at the high school.

Family members say Victor Thunderchild, a well-known and well-loved teacher, touched many lives during his 29-year career, always using education as a tool of empowerment for others. (Victor Thunderchild/Facebook)

Violet says while she and Victor had three children of their own, the couple helped support numerous adopted children during their life. 

His daughter, Renee, says her dad was one of a kind, and wherever he went, he carried himself with pride, even in the face of adversity.

"He was the most perfect human being of a father," she said. "Even when it was a tough decision, he always made the right decision." 

Ryanda, another one of Victor's daughters, says he was always there for his students, helping to support them outside of the classroom as well.

"He was very proud of who he was and he was very proud of being a Plains Cree First Nation man … and he always wanted other people to be proud of who they were, and to not let things get you down and to keep going," she said. 

"He wanted other young Aboriginal people to feel proud of being Native." 

Thunderchild's passion was evident online. His Twitter biography stated education is "the most powerful weapon of all."

While in hospital with the virus, he continued to fight for his fellow teachers, tweeting directly at Premier Scott Moe and calling for educators to be vaccinated. 

"Thank you @PremierScottMoe for not thinking we're essential workers, as I sit in the @PAHealthDept Vic hospital recovering from COVID-19," he said in the April 5 tweet, which has since been shared hundreds of times. 

"Get my fellow teachers vaccinated, before this happens to anyone else."

On Saturday, CBC News requested an interview with Education Minister Dustin Duncan for a response to the calls for teachers to be vaccinated, but he was not available.

The Ministry of Education sent a statement offering its condolences to Thunderchild's family and loved ones.

"Our thoughts are also with the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division community, and especially with the students who Mr. Thunderchild taught and with the Carlton Comprehensive High School staff that he worked with."

It was evident that Thunderchild's "dedication to helping students was exceptional," the statement said.

While the ministry acknowledged teachers have "put extraordinary effort into the safety and well-being of students" as the province moves through what is "hopefully the last leg of this pandemic," its statement did not say teachers will be prioritized for vaccination anytime soon, and instead encouraged teachers to get vaccinations as their age group becomes eligible.

"Saskatchewan school divisions continue to have regular communication with their local medical health officers in making appropriate local decisions to enable education to continue as safely as possible," the statement said.

'A bright light of friendship'

Jen Bear worked with Victor at Carlton Comprehensive, starting at the school roughly 20 years ago. She says for her, Victor was an adopted big brother who welcomed her with open arms. 

"He was so inviting and friendly and he was always one to make you feel welcome and make you a part of the community," she said.

"He'd bring you alongside and he'd be introducing you as a new member — but also a new family member.… We were instantly family," said Bear.

"He was a real role model who always brought a light, a bright light of friendship and happiness."

Victor Thunderchild, who died as a result of COVID-19 on Saturday, is seen here with his wife, Violet. He is being remembered as a loving father, husband and educator who would do anything for his students and his family. (Violet Thunderchild/Facebook)

Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said the loss of Victor Thunderchild is being felt right across the province, as he was a leader and a friend to many. 

"He's going to leave a huge hole," he said.

Maze recalled Thunderchild as an advocate for essential workers across the province, noting he was an active figure in the federation, fighting for his fellow teachers and for First Nations and treaty education.

This is the first death of an educator in the province due to COVID-19 that Maze has been notified of, he said.

Thunderchild's death brings with it "so many levels" of disappointment, as the teachers' federation has been advocating for educators to get priority for vaccination and for schools to move to Level 4 under the province's Safe Schools Plan, which would see schools move to more remote learning.

"Right now, we need to focus on making sure his family is supported and making sure all his colleagues at Carlton and all of his contacts in Prince Albert are supported, but definitely, his death could have been prevented," Maze said.

"We've been calling on protections for front-line workers right across the province, so this is incredibly frustrating," he said.

"Unfortunately, our province lost a really great man."