Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aboriginal educator toots her own horn

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It is easy for the reader to be annoyed by the extensive presence of the pronoun I in Verna Kirkness's thorough, even businesslike, account of her career as a successful aboriginal educator in Manitoba.

Perhaps less reliance on the dreaded I-word, which seems to pop up on every page, could have given a more modest tone to the style. Tighter editing could have reduced the amount of trivia, details like the stop where she once caught the bus.

Creating Space

My Life and Work in Indigenous


By Verna J. Kirkness

University of Manitoba Press,

194 pages, $35

The Winnipeg-based Kirkness, now 77 and retired, held several key jobs with the Education Department, and she points proudly to her high status in the world of aboriginal education.

It's no wonder that she was regarded as "Miss Indian Control of Indian Education," for her range of involvement has been extraordinary. She devotes much of Creating Spaces to illustrating this fact.

She cannot be blamed for being ambitious. In many respects Kirkness has just capitalized on opportunities that came her way.

She was born on the Fisher River reserve as a non-Status Indian in 1935. Her childhood conditions were simple. Dwellings had no electricity, and a pot-bellied stove and coal-oil lamp were major household items. Kirkness remarks that she never felt poor during her early years.

She was successful in school, public school rather than residential school, and she made effective use of her Cree language.

While still a teenager she became a permit teacher, and once she had learned about government loans she was off to normal school for teacher training.

As a qualified teacher, Kirkness advanced from job to job (including positions at Norway House) on reserves and in Birtle residential school. She moved from teaching to supervisory and administrative roles.

At various times she was teaching while working on a curriculum project and a writing project at the same time.

As early as 1971 she was showing leadership qualities, for example, by contributing to Wahbung: Our Tomorrows, a policy statement by the chiefs of Manitoba.

Her professional life continued to branch out, as she matched with partners like Ida Wasacase, Flora Zaharia, Laara Fitznor and Bruce Sealey.

The latter, a Métis educator (and excellent hockey coach) and writer, collaborated with Kirkness on the publication Indians Without Tipis.

She spent a term on staff at the University of British Columbia. She produced a host of articles, which often started out as workshop presentations and found their way into educational journals. Her materials progressively increased in sophistication as she helped develop cross-cultural curriculum for social studies.

A noticeable feature of the text is her revelation of personal interests and involvements. The person named Jim is introduced rather subtly at first.

As the story line develops, Jim assumes a growing role. Eventually he and Kirkness are travelling together, spending months on holidays in Florida. Then they are celebrating, even on New Year's Eve. At one point they buy property together.

They contemplate various personal associations, although they refrain from the option of marriage.

Ultimately they decide on separate lives, although the reader is left to guess the dynamics underlying the relationship in the long run.

Kirkness asks, "So what would I do differently if I were to live my life over again? Her answer, "Well, not much."

The combination of Kirkness's ambition and her opportunities produced a career remarkable by any standard.

Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer with a longtime interest in aboriginal issues.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A1

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