Maracle's career groundbreaking for Indigenous women

KINGSTON – An office with a view.

Kelly Maracle, the newly named Limestone District School Board (LDSB) trustee representing the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, can remember a time when an office with a window changed her life.

The Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory resident and longtime educator had been hired in 2011 to help get the Aboriginal Secondary School Program, a joint initiative between the Limestone board and the Katarokwi Native Friendship Centre, off the ground. Five years after having been hired, the centre moved to a new location.

“I was given a front office,” Maracle remembered with a smile, noting what a significant move it would prove to be for her at that point in her career. The new location housed two offices near the front, with one being more central and having the nicer view.

“A colleague of mine and I were kind of jabbing each other like ‘Who’s going to get the good office and the nice view?’ ” Maracle recalled with a laugh.

Her prophetic friend said something in that moment that would become Maracle’s new mantra.

“He said to me at that time ‘It has got to be you. Indigenous students don’t walk in and see an Indigenous woman in the front office… it doesn’t happen.’ ”

He was right. Indigenous women, and Indigenous Canadians in general, were busy fighting just to be heard and seen.

“For me, that was huge to be in the good office,” Maracle reflected. “And to have Indigenous students come in and see an Indigenous woman there, front and centre, it was a really big deal.”

Maracle has made a career of breaking ground for not only Indigenous Canadians, but for Indigenous women as well. Her latest post began last week when she was sworn in as the first Indigenous member of the new LDSB board of trustees, representing the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, at a meeting at the board offices.

“This is even bigger,” a smiling and bubbly Maracle said referring to her former front office, during in an interview following the meeting.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more qualified candidate for the position than Maracle.

After graduating from the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at Queen’s University in 2003, Maracle began teaching grade school at Quinte Mohawk School before moving overseas to teach special education in Ireland. It wasn’t long before she returned home to her roots where she helped start the aforementioned program at the Katarokwi Native Friendship Centre.

“That’s where my connection with Limestone started,” Maracle reflected of the school board. “It was a partnership between the community organization and the school board. I was hired as this community partner and we worked there with students who were disengaged from the mainstream system in high school.”

The position quickly showed Maracle where her true passion in the education sector could be found.

“I realized I really liked working with high school students,” she said, adding she went back to school to get her high school qualifications. Soon, the school board added an Indigenous student support position, which Maracle was hired to fill.

“That’s how I started officially with Limestone,” Maracle said. “Then I worked my way up. I was the first vice-principle of Indigenous education last year.”

Maracle wasn’t done there. She’s since returned to her alma mater, Queen’s, where she’s a professor in the Indigenous Studies program.

And as of last week, another first with her appointment as a board trustee.

“I thought it was a really good way to stay connected with Limestone and with education and with Indigenous students and families, but also representing my home community, which is Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte,” Maracle said of the position and opportunity. “It's a really good way to make sure that I can still be connected to community and education and working with Indigenous students and families, but also representing my home community, which is a pretty big deal because this position wasn't there before. “

The significance of the position isn’t lost on Maracle either.

“Overwhelming,” Maracle said when asked about the significance of having a seat at the horseshoe with the board. “It’s amazing.” She then repeated the words said to her by Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte education director Heather Green in reference to the position: “It’s been a long time coming.”

History, after all, hasn’t been kind to Indigenous Canadians, particularly where it relates to education. For decades, Indigenous Canadians were shipped off to residential schools where they faced abuse, were stripped of their languages, identities and culture and scores even died. Even mainstream education has been mostly devoid of Indigenous culture and history.

“I remember (a time when) even resources were hard to come by,” Maracle said. “There was a time in my career that we would edit different pieces of writing to make them accessible to different reading levels in different ages because there weren’t enough resources out there. We would rewrite or write our own for the Indigenous students that we were working with.”

Canada’s 2015 National Truth and Reconciliation Report uncovered Canada’s dirty secret and created calls to action to right its wrongs.

“We've done a lot of work, and I think that there are a lot of really positive things that have happened,” Maracle said of the shift since the TRC report. “I feel like Indigenous education has exploded, especially in the past couple of years since TRC.”

That said, she believes there is still a disconnect when it comes to Indigenous education.

“I think there are a lot of people with good hearts, they're doing a lot of good work, but in saying that, we're still missing a true understanding of what Indigenous education is,” Maracle said. “A lot of the curriculum is about teaching about Indigenous people, not teaching Indigenous people of their own culture or ways and certainly not teaching from an Indigenous approach or pedagogy. I think that's where we're at in terms of what we need to do moving forward is really understand the benefits of an Indigenous pedagogy and Indigenous approach for all students, not just Indigenous students, but kind of moving from this curriculum of let's teach you about Indigenous people (where) the context of everything is in the past to let's start looking at the benefits and beauty of Indigenous knowledge and an Indigenous approach to education because that's where we're going to reach all students.”

While acknowledging Canada’s dark past when it comes to Indigenous eduction, Maracle sees a much brighter future thanks to the creation of positions such as the one she now holds with the board.

“My great-grandparents were fluent Mohawk speakers,” she said. “My grandmother was a speaker but didn't teach my dad so we didn't learn. It's only been one generation for me that that there's that disconnect, but look at the opportunity that something like this (position) has in terms of regaining that knowledge and re-learning those things for my kids, right? That's huge. I feel like I'm this bridge in the middle of where things were actively taken away to now, when my kids are going to school in an environment where they're going to be able to learn and embrace who they are. That's only one generation apart.”

Maracle’s inclusion on the board takes a big step toward that.

“First I want to acknowledge that it's not just the school board, but it's the school board and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and their relationship together moving forward and something that has a lot of strength if those two entities are working together,” she said. “I think there's a lot of opportunities for students, there's a lot of growth and vision that can come from a partnership of the two. And I also think there's a lot that the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte can support and and help teach Limestone about Indigenizing spaces and places and approaches to education.”

She also noted that she will not just be representing the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, but all Indigenous students throughout the board.

“I think it's important to note that that representation has to be inclusive of all Indigenous people,” she said.

Maracle paused briefly when asked to reflect on the trail she’s blazed on the way to this position with the board.

“It’s just about the respect and acknowledgement for me,” she said. “I started off my career really in a place where Indigenous people had to fight for everything and to be sitting here now at a board office table and to be here talking with you, that didn't happen before. The recognition and acknowledgement and the being heard, that didn’t happen.”

She paused again, revealing her private thoughts she had while driving to the inaugural meeting.

“I was thinking a lot about my father, who passed away a couple of years ago,” Maracle said. “He died of cancer. And I was thinking about my grandmother.”

Once more she paused.

“My two brothers and my sister and I, we all had the opportunity to go to post-secondary (school),” she said, adding that their father worked really hard to create the opportunity for post-secondary, which he then was adamant his children do. “Education can change everything. From having gone to university and literally working my way up from community partner to becoming a teacher to upping my qualification to now working in post-secondary and sitting at the board office table… my dad would be shocked,” she said as her voice trailed. “He'd be so proud, but shocked. And I kind of am, too. I'm shocked. I can't believe I'm there. That’s the truth. I can't believe that I'm sitting there. I haven’t digested it yet.”

But much as she broke ground with that front office with a view, Maracle intends to do the same in her new role.

“It's very exciting. A big role to fill.”

With no better shoes to fill it.

Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.