Meet Verna Kirkness, the Indigenous education hero from Fisher River Cree Nation

It's been more than 60 years since Verna Kirkness first stepped inside of a classroom to teach, but she hasn't stopped advocating for Indigenous education and is still volunteering to help Indigenous students and educators across the country.

83-year-old former teacher has spent her life encouraging Indigenous students

Verna Kirkness got her teaching diploma in the 1950s and first taught in her home community of Fisher River Cree Nation. (As It Happened Productions)

It's been more than 60 years since Verna Kirkness first stepped inside of a classroom to teach, but she hasn't stopped advocating for Indigenous education and is still volunteering to help Indigenous students and educators across the country.

Kirkness, 83, is now the subject of a short documentary called Chalk to Change co-produced by Sheryl Peters and Angela Chalmers. Peters said she feels Kirkness's story is important for Canadians to know.

Verna Kirkness has dedicated her life to improving education for Indigenous students. Listen to her story told by her nephew, Doug Beyer. 6:49

Kirkness was born and raised in Fisher River Cree Nation, Man., about 200 km north of Winnipeg. When she was four, she would go knock on the school's door to try and get in.

"I wanted to be a teacher but I never really expressed that because I never had a Native teacher," said Kirkness.

"I didn't know that our people could be teachers."

After Grade 8, she was separated from her peers because she was a non-status Indian. While her all her friends were sent to residential school, Kirkness went to high school with non-Indigenous students in Teulon, Man.

"It was the first time I was among non-Indigenous people," said Kirkness.

In the 1950s she earned a teaching diploma and went back home to teach in Fisher River. In 1959, she wanted a first-hand experience of being at a residential school. She went to work at Birtle Indian Residential School, and was saddened by what she saw.

"They didn't want the children to get to be with me," said Kirkness.

Kirkness said the administration at the school didn't want her to return after her first year, but she went back for a second to show them that she wouldn't back down.

Q. What is your favourite accomplishment as an educator?

VK: Being a part of the policy [paper] of "Indian Control of Indian Education" back in 1972. It's still a landmark policy and document that all of the progress since then has been based on for First Nations people. Before that, our people had no say at all in their children's education.

Kirkness with former student Harold Cochrane. (As It Happened Productions)

Once that policy came out, things changed, even though it's been a constant struggle to have it our way. When we first thought about it, we certainly had our thoughts on bringing in indigenous curriculum, history, languages and everything. Since then, a lot has happened, but more could have happened if we had the co-operation of the government when we were moving forward. However, I still think it is a landmark document and policy that set us on track for where we are today.

Q: What are you up to these days?

VK: I'm helping with the Kirkness Science and Engineering program. This is the 10th year of the program. We started small in Winnipeg. Now we have nine centres across the country. In a nutshell, we bring in and try to encourage more Indigenous students to go into the science and engineering fields, because we don't have too many that enter that field.

At the University of Manitoba I'm the one that started the program to get more Indigenous PhDs at the school. At least a dozen have graduated with their PhDs since the program started.

Q. What message would you have for young Indigenous students?

VK: I just love to see them believe in themselves and look to the future and follow their dreams. I was so excited this last June when I was invited to my reserve. I saw 22 graduates, almost an even split between males and females. We tend to see more of our females going through than males, so this was nice to see. I noticed that they were all 18 and 19 years old, and right on age/grade par.

Fisher River Cree Nation is about 200 km north of Winnipeg. (As It Happened Productions)

Most importantly, they all had their plans for September for what they we're going to do in post-secondary. That's the kind of thing that I like to see. That really touched my heart to see how far we've come in my own reserve.

One thing I've noticed over the years, as soon as we could get more Indigenous studies into these post-secondary institutions, our students when they graduate, they really want to get out there and help to advance our Indigenous Peoples' lives, whether it's in health or in business or education, whatever.

When I started teaching, I think there were 20 of us Indigenous teachers across Canada. And now we've got thousands just in the field of education. Now there is much more influence toward making lives better for our people, our students, our children.

Q. What message would you have for Indigenous educators getting into the field?

VK: I feel that most of them, they know what works. I remember when we first started talking about changing the curriculum and including Indian culture, they thought all we were going to do was beadwork. It's a far cry from what we had in mind. We need a true history out there.

I've talked to a lot of young educators. They are already inspired to go out there and do a good job. Our universities now, thankfully, have a number of Indigenous people also that are professors that are teaching them. That's where all of the difference begins to happen.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1