November 2005. Dolores Wawia is standing in front of an audience of 320 women who have come to the Valhalla Inn in Thunder Bay for the first Northern Ontario Women’s Leadership Forum. Her 4-foot, 11-inch frame is barely visible behind the podium, but you can tell from the tone of her voice and the silence of the room that she has everyone’s rapt attention.
After the smudging ceremony and the opening prayer, Wawia begins speaking about her journey to become an Assistant Professor in Lakehead University’s Faculty of Education. It’s a story that begins on the northwestern shores of Lake Nipigon and moves through residential school, teachers college, and two universities – one in the south and one in the north.
Wawia is dressed in her regalia – an ochre-colored deerhide suit with fringes and abalone shells. As Elder-in-Residence in the Faculty of Education, she is in high demand for special ceremonies – sometimes doing as many as 15 grand openings in a six-week period. “The older I get, it seems the busier I am,” she says.
Born the eldest of 12 children in the Ojibwe community of Gull Bay in 1944, Wawia was a student at St. Joseph’s Boarding School and Orphanage in Fort William, before completing a high school diploma from Hammarskjold, a teaching certificate from Lakehead Teacher’s College, a BA from McMaster University, and a BEd and a MEd from Lakehead University.
“I was the first Aboriginal woman in Northwestern Ontario to get a Bachelor of Arts, and the first to get a Master’s degree in Education,” she says proudly. “I have nine brothers and sisters living – six of us attended Lakehead and between us all, we have 14 degrees.”
In July 1975, Wawia was hired by the Faculty of Education to work as a teacher/counsellor in the newly established Native Teacher Education Program (NTEP).
“There were 36 students in first year, and I can tell you that we had many growing pains. But overall the program was successful. Many of our graduates, like Goyce Kakegamic (NTEP‘83, BA‘86), Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, are now in leadership positions within the Aboriginal community.”
Today NTEP – the first and longest running program of its kind in Ontario – is still going strong.
“What motivates Aboriginals to go back to school isn’t money or fame,” says Wawia. “It’s family. Most want to make a better life for their children.”
This was certainly true for Dolores Wawia.
At age 21, she left an abusive husband on the Gull Bay Indian Reserve, taking two young children with her. Her goal was to finish high school and she succeeded – but not before failing physics three times, giving birth to another child, and attending night school in Thunder Bay because, in those days, pregnant women were not allowed to attend regular daytime classes.
Later on, while working full-time as a grade school teacher in Peterborough, Ontario, she realized she simply couldn’t make ends meet. The only way to increase her salary was to get a university degree, which she did in two years at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her three children were looked after by her good friends Carl and Esther Lennstrom – who are “like family to me.”
“ALL teachers should be taught HOW to MEET the NEEDS of Native children in the CLASSROOM.”
– Dolores Wawia
Next followed a 15-year period at Lakehead University developing the Native Teacher Education Program (NTEP), after which she took a three-year leave of absence to move back to Hamilton to help McMaster University set up an Indigenous studies program.
“All teachers should be taught how to meet the needs of Native children in the classroom,” says Wawia, “There are all kinds of cultural differences. Native people communicate differently. We usually have an indirect means of answering questions. Native people tend to be group oriented, rather than individualistic, and we tend to be circular thinkers rather than linear thinkers.”
Throughout her career, Wawia has made it a regular practice to go into the schools to talk to children about Aboriginal culture.
“Storytelling is important in Aboriginal culture. If someone asks for advice, say on how to deal with a problem, I would never tell them what to do. Instead, I would tell them four or five different stories and let them choose which direction to take.”
One of the stories she would often tell schoolchildren is the story of how she got her Aboriginal name: Muk kee Queh (Frog Lady). To her delight, many of these same children, now adults, still recognize her and will stop her on the street to say, “Hello Frog Lady! How are you Frog Lady?”
Click the play button to listen to
three stories by Dolores Wawia on
how children are given their Aboriginal names:
her mother's story, her story,
and her granddaughter's story.
Length: 12 minutes, 50 seconds.
These days, Dolores Wawia is organizing storytelling sessions at the Thunder Bay Public Library where everyone – from all cultural backgrounds – can come to share their stories.
Wawia has seen a lot of change at Lakehead and believes the Faculty of Education has continued to blossom under the direction of Julia O’Sullivan, the Dean.
In 2003-2004, Lakehead announced the establishment of a new Department of Aboriginal Education – the first of its kind in Canada. It incorporates existing Aboriginal programs within the Faculty of Education, and is committed to the development of new initiatives within Aboriginal education. The same year, Lakehead announced the appointment of Lauri Gilchrist as Associate Vice-Provost (Aboriginal Initiatives).
In 2005, Ethel Gardner was hired as Chair of the Department of Aboriginal Education and in 2006 Judy Iseke-Barnes became the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education.
Wawia sees a bright future ahead and is proud to be associated with Lakehead University.
In the summer of 2005, she was honored at the Fort William First Nation powwow on Mount McKay for 30 years of service to Lakehead University and the Aboriginal community. In the fall of the same year, she and three other Aboriginal people were chosen to be recipients of Lakehead University’s 40 Northern Lights award.
This year at Convocation, Dolores Wawia will be at the podium again, dressed in her regalia and delivering an Ojibwe prayer to the Class of 2006. It’s an invocation to the Creator that nicely sums up her approach to life and learning.
O Great Spirit
Whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world
Hear me, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset
Make my hands respect the things I have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock
I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy – myself
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame