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Dolores Wawia, an 'ogiimaakwe' in Indigenous education, mourned across Ontario

People across northwestern Ontario are mourning the death of Dolores Wawia, a trailblazer and long-time advocate for Indigenous education, who died Sunday at the age of 76.

Wawia, who held Masters in education 'really was the person who cleared the path for so many of us'

Dolores Wawia was a founding member of the Lakehead Public Schools Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee and was serving as the co-chair until her death this weekend at age 76. She is widely recognized as one of the trailblazers for Indigenous education in Ontario. (Lakehead Public Schools/Facebook)

People across northwestern Ontario are mourning the death of Dolores Wawia, a trailblazer and long-time advocate for Indigenous education, who died Sunday at the age of 76.

Wawia, who was from Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, also known as Gull Bay First Nation, was a founding member of the Lakehead Public Schools Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee and was serving as the co-chair when she died.

"We lost a great ogiimaakwe, which is a leader," said Anika Guthrie, the First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education coordinator for the Lakehead public board. "I've learned so much from her."

Wawia, who held a Masters in education, spent 15 years at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay developing the Native Teacher Education Program (NTEP), followed by three years helping set up the Indigenous Studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton

"She really was the person who cleared the path for so many of us to do the work and be able to support our Indigenous students" in Thunder Bay and across Ontario.

'The wisdom in her pause'

Wawia not only influenced and shaped best practices around supporting and assisting Indigenous students, she also guided the way Indigenous tradition and culture could, and should be woven into the curriculum.

"I can't tell you the number of times where we've said 'well, we'll have to see what Dolores thinks about that' before we even move forward with a concept or an idea." said Guthrie.

Wawia was "relentless" in the way she tackled issues like racism, and challenged people to deepen their understanding "in a way that's not challenging people or where they're coming from, but it's moving us forward in a good way."

But Guthrie said Wawia also always offered hope, noting she will always remember "the wisdom in her pause."

"When someone would ask a question, or before she shared a story, there was just this moment of pause, and then she would share of herself, she would share what it was she had for you, and then again another pause at the end, and it's in those moments of pause that you're really able to feel what she was saying and to let that settle in."

'Matriarch, Elder, survivor'

Wawia was widely regarded for her power as a storyteller, and she had many stories to share.

Wawia's granddaughter Summer Reilly posted that her grandmother was "a survivor" of multiple challenges including residential school, tuberculosis, domestic violence, a heart attack, a major stroke, two brain aneurysms "and much much more than that".

"She was a matriarch of our family and she was an Elder for our community".

Dolores Wawia, (centre front) in the white sweater, was a trailblazer for Indigenous education. Her she is pictured with the other members of the Lakehead Public Schools Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee. (Anika Guthrie/Lakehead Public Schools)

The Lakehead public board posted on its Facebook site Sunday that it was "deeply saddened" to hear of Wawia's death.

"Lakehead Public Schools has made significant strides in Indigenous Education over the years. This would never have occurred without the direct guidance of Dolores.

Our sympathies go to her family, friends, colleagues and former students."

You can hear the full interview with Anika Guthrie on CBC's Up North program here. 

People across Ontario are mourning the passing of Dolores Wawia, a trailblazer for Indigenous education in the province. Wawia was from Gull Bay First Nation in the northwest, and overcame many challenges to earn her Masters degree in education. She was one of the founding members of the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee for the Lakehead public school board in Thunder Bay and was serving as the co-chair until her death this weekend at age 76. Anika Guthrie is the First Nations, Metis, Inuit education coordinator for Lakehead schools and worked closely with Wawia for years. She spoke with the CBC's Cathy Alex. 7:06

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