My Life and Work in Indigenous Education
Verna J. Kirkness grew up on the Fisher River Indian reserve in Manitoba. Her childhood dream to be a teacher set her on a lifelong journey in education as a teacher, counsellor, consultant, and professor.
As the first cross-cultural consultant for the Manitoba Department of Education Curriculum Branch she made Cree and Ojibway the languages of instruction in several Manitoba schools. In the early 1970s she became the first Education Director for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and then Education Director for the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations). She played a pivotal role in developing the education sections of Wahbung: Our Tomorrows, which transformed Manitoba education, and the landmark 1972 national policy of Indian Control of Indian Education. These two major works have shaped First Nations education in Canada for more than 40 years.
In the 1980s she became an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia where she was appointed Director of the Native Teacher Education Program, founded the Ts’‘Kel Graduate Program, and was a driving force behind the creation of the First Nations House of Learning. Honoured by community and country, Kirkness is a visionary who has inspired, and been inspired by, generations of students.
Like a long conversation between friends, Creating Space reveals the challenges and misgivings, the burning questions, the successes and failures that have shaped the life of this extraordinary woman and the history of Aboriginal education in Canada.
“This autobiography is an archive of transformative Indigenous leadership. In it, Verna Kirkness—Cree woman and visionary, teacher, mentor, friend, policymaker, culturally vibrant intellectual, and Aboriginal education trailblazer—recounts her life story.”
– Charlotte Henay, York University, Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’education
“I cannot separate Dr. Kirkness’s style of leadership from a picture I have in my mind of her leading an honor dance. Honor songs are ancient. In my mind the honor dance she leads is, as always, recreated and new, and the air resonates not only with the drumming but with the collective attention of the participants…. Just as she would lead at the head of an honor dance, her style of leadership is not imposing; just as in an honor-dance, she does not attempt to set the direction or rhythm. The direction is inevitable and has been set by tradition; it is forward, balanced and harmonious. The rhythm is one that is established by the drum, the living song itself. It speaks to the minds and hearts of all who participate.”
– Dr. Carl Urion, University of Alberta
“Readers who work in fields where Indigenous people are under-represented will find much to identify with in her work. It is noteworthy that, whenever Kirkness was ready to leave a post, she would not do so until her pride and her sense of duty were satisfied. Succession and mentorship in her trailblazing roles were vitally important to her, and this serves as an important reminder of the work that remains to be done in the field of Indian education, and which our generation is undertaking.”
– Mary Jane Logan McCallum, University of Winnipeg, The Canadian Historical Review
“Kirkness, whose autobiography, Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education, came out this fall, has been at the forefront of indigenous education for half a century: she taught in residential schools as a young woman, served as a policy advisor for both the National Indian Brotherhood and the government, and founded an indigenous teaching program at the University of British Columbia.
“Verna is so much the Elder one sits with, making a basket; teaching us to make this basket with stories and humour. She narrates the conditions of life on the reserves, at day schools, and residential schools. She worked with important leaders such as Chief Simon Baker, editing his autobiography, Khot-La-Cha. Verna explains how the now famous UBC initiatives such as NITEP (Native Indian Teacher Education Program) and Ts”kel (Indigenous Graduate Studies) began; she also narrates how the First Nations House of Learning came to be built. Without overstating her role, Verna nonetheless played an almost Promethean part in this history.”
“Verna Kirkness is clearly a woman ahead of her time and one that has unbolted many doors in order to ‘create space’ in the education system for Indigenous Peoples. Her past and continuing work both inspires and informs the burgeoning number of stellar educators who have followed in her footsteps.”
“Verna Kirkness has been a profound influence in the progress of Indigenous peoples in this country to shape education structures, policies, and practices. While there is still a long way to go, the languages and cultures of Canada’s First Peoples are now recognized, included, and honoured in school curricula thanks in large measure to the work of Verna Kirkness. As an important role model, Verna’s gift of her autobiography is a crucial legacy.”
– Helen Armstrong, Brandon University, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies
“I hold up my hands to Dr. Verna J. Kirkness (Ni-Jing-Jada) for sharing her life’s work and creating more space for the current and future waves of Indigenous scholars in education. Kirkness’ intention is to provide a window on the past. This window is an opening to bring light and to allow Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike to understand the historical barriers, challenges, imbalances, and positive development of Indian education, particularly in Canada.”
– Georgina R. Martin, University of British Columbia, Canadian Journal of Native Education
About the Author
Verna J. Kirkness is an associate professor emeritus at University of British Columbia. She is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of Indigenous education. She lives in Winnipeg.