Given everything she’s accomplished, her long list of accomplishments and degrees and her new position at Loyalist College, it’s hard to imagine an education world without Jennifer Maracle.
But the reality is, that was almost the case.
“I didn’t start in education,” Maracle, the new director of Indigenous Services at Loyalist College in Belleville, said in an interview inside the college’s Indigenous Resource Centre, which was bustling with activity ahead of a new school year.
Maracle’s parents both worked with numbers, her father the provincial director of finance for Indian Affairs and her mother a well known banker in Belleville.
“I grew up with numbers and that's what I went to school for,” Maracle, a member of the Bear Clan from Ken:teke, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, said. But it didn’t take long for Maracle to realize she wasn’t destined to follow in her family’s footsteps.
“It wasn't until I was sitting alone in a room that I realized I really didn't like being by myself and that I needed that communication with other people,” she said.
So she returned to school in 2002 and fate pulled her toward her destiny in education.
“I had an undergrad In Canadian history, she said, adding that she was accepted into Queen’s University’s Indigenous Teacher Education Program, setting in motion a career that would not only alter her life, but those of so many along her journey.
“Going through the undergrad with the Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, I felt that I needed to get out and support my own people,” she said. “I was ideally going into history at that point to tell history from both sides.”
But her future wasn’t in history after all. It was in the elementary school system, where special education became Maracle’s passion.
Maracle spent almost two decades at Quinte Mohawk School, where she worked as an educator before serving as the school’s special education co-ordinator. She left the school for Loyalist with many fond memories.
“It's pretty powerful when you can work at a school in your own community,” she said, when asked what kept her passion alive. “I was teaching family members – and when I say family members, I mean community members.”
The connection with students and parents alike was a powerful one, Maracle said.
“I was able to text back and forth with parents: ‘This is this is a picture of your son, look what he's doing’ …. How awesome is this?’ Or ‘So and so is having a bad day, can you give me some information?’ Those kind of relationships that you build with parents in that small community really are what drove me. There was a great deal of satisfaction from being able to engage in a relationship like that and help move a child forward, not just academically, but emotionally (and) spiritually.”
The school experiences Maracle and educators of today are able to create are in stark contrast to what Indigenous children faced for decades at residential schools, which have become notorious for their abuses and atrocious treatment of Aboriginal children.
“It happened in our lifetime,” Maracle said, emotion in her voice. “In our in our lifetime, this was happening,” she repeated.
The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, released in 2015, detailed horrendous abuses children faced at Canada’s residential schools. In the last year and half, hundreds of bodies of children buried in unmarked graves at residential schools have been discovered, while it is estimated thousands more remain.
Maracle called the discoveries a wakeup call Canada has long needed.
“The biggest change stemming from the awareness is that people are asking questions now and they're not always appropriate questions. Very much like a child seeing something new, they're going to ask the direct questions: Did you go to residential school? Did you have a family member go? That interest is essential to keep moving forward so that we can translate that into knowledge, to translate that into an actionable item.”
At Loyalist, Maracle said, she and the faculty are zeroing in on the six Calls to Action pertaining to education in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
“We are boiling them down to what we can control,” she said. “Incorporating more cultural knowledge in all of the courses and that begins with the faculty. The faculty is very interested in learning more,” she said, recounting that a day earlier she’d given a talk about the Two Row Wampum painted on the wall outside the resource centre. “I could tell that I had their attention. They asked good questions after. We wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago.”
The Two Row Wampum are painted on the walls outside the centre, distinct and divided white and purple sections that stretch down the hallway.
“This is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee people and the Dutch people in this early 1600s -- Haudenosaunee at that time was just five nations because the Tuscarora didn’t joint until the 1700s,” Maracle said.
“As the Dutch were moving in, the colonists were moving into our area, the Haudenosaunee went to meet them and say let's have an agreement here,” she continued. “The Dutch wanted to have a father/son agreement, the Haudenosaunee people said, let's have brother to brother. So this is what they came up with,” she said referring the Two Row Wampum. “The purple here, they're rivers. And in this river is the Haudenosaunee people in their canoe and they are following their path. And they are following their ways of knowing their law, their governance.”
“Up here,” she said, pointing to a white section, “the Dutch, the colonists, are in their ship. And they are staying in their lane, following their laws, their ways of knowing and what have you. And you can see that the two are never to cross.,” she said, pointing down the hallway.
The reality, she said, both sides did not continue to respect the treaty.
“Only one group has fulfilled this treaty so far,” Maracle said. “The idea is that the people from one vessel are never to try and steer the other vessel, which is what's happened with the Indian Act, residential schools, even the education system that we have now, the public system, with the history being told from one side.”
Maracle is steadfast and deliberate when asked about her role at Loyalist.
“My job here is to make sure that everyone who’s in my vessel, which is everyone who comes through those doors, they are my priority right now,” she said. “I'm going to make sure that they have everything they need to succeed in life to the best of their ability. That means academic support, that means emotional support, spiritual support (and) physical support. We’re their home away from home to help them get through.”
With 79 incoming students into the program, Maracle said the focus will also be on retention and graduation rates, as well self-identification, something she herself once struggled with.
“When I did my Master of Education and I graduated in 2017, I refused to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in it because I didn't think it would be taken seriously,” she revealed. “So I'm doing my PhD now, essentially, to decolonize my thesis for my Masters because I realized the importance of incorporating that holistic approach, Devil be damned, to what Western academia says.”
A drive to increase self-identification was beginning that day, Maracle said. “Because we still have people who don't want that.”
As Maracle’s career shifts from elementary level to post-secondary, she reflected on her accomplishments, both personally and professionally.
“I have four children,” she answered instantly when asked about her greatest accomplishment in life. Professionally, however, the answer was less emphatic.
“Now you’re going to make me cry,” she said, recalling the story of a student at Quinte Mohawk School whom she taught in a special education classroom.
“I failed him in every way possible by not teaching him in our ways,” Maracle said. “I was focusing only on a linear progression from not being able to read to being able to read. He had a learning disability. He wasn't going to learn how to read that way. There are other things I could have done, but I didn't and I failed him in every way.”
Maracle was so steadfast in her belief that she’s failed this young student that it propelled her to return to school to earn her Masters, which she used to develop a program that continues at the school. For a long time, Maracle said she was haunted by the feeling that she’d failed that student.
That was, however, until a chance encounter with him this summer.
“He told everybody ‘This is my favourite teacher because she told me I could do it. She told me I could go to college and I did. Mrs. Maracle, I went and I graduated,” Maracle recounted, her voice cracking.
“So I didn't fail him,” she said. “But what he did was he forced me to look at what needed to be changed and here we are.”
(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. )
Jan Murphy, Local Journalism Initiative, Belleville Intelligencer