Mary Courchene wins the Canadian Teachers’ Federation 2014 Outstanding Indigenous Educator Award

By Kate Hawkins

When Mary Courchene was forced to leave her home on the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve to begin her education in a residential school in the 1950s, she was certain she would never want to be a teacher.

“I had no aspirations ever to go into teaching, because it was too much of a traumatic experience,” she said.

It wasn’t until she entered grade seven, when an influential teacher gave her the care and praise she needed to succeed, that she realized what a difference teaching could make in the lives of children.

“She was always saying ‘oh Mary, you’re so smart,’ … she nurtured me and she recognized there was something in there… That was my very first real teacher. And I will always cherish that. I became a teacher because of her," said Courchene.

After pursuing an education at Brandon University, Courchene went on to become an elementary and high school teacher, counselor, the Dean of Aboriginal Education at Red River College and the first principal of the Children of the Earth High school, the first urban Indigenous high school in Manitoba.

She also worked as an assistant superintendent within the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, was a founding member of the Manitoba First Nation Education Resource Centre and an original member of the Urban Aboriginal Teachers Committee.

“Teaching for me is building relationships, and that’s what it’s all about. After all, we are all interrelated,” she said.

Although she retired in 2003, Courchene felt she still had “too much energy” and soon afterwards accepted a position as the elder in residence for the Transcona and Seven Oaks school division.

Although Courchene has won many awards for her excellence in teaching, she said that this one will hold a special meaning for her:

“All the years that I’ve taught, the real meaning of what it is to teach and to be a good teacher, came into fruition. And the reason that I will cherish the award is that it’s the culmination of the dream that I had to forge ahead for a better tomorrow for my children, for Aboriginal students and to see us achieve true equality.”

The Outstanding Indigenous Educator Award aims to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous teachers and Indigenous culture in Canadian education. It is awarded to a teacher who shows great Indigenous education leadership and community involvement in public education through a curriculum that addresses Indigenous history, culture and language.

Mary Courchene was nominated by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS). As a Manitoba teacher and principle, Courchene was a union member with MTS during her career, as well as being a member of a superintendent advisory committee that was affiliated with the group.

(Kate Hawkins is a journalism student who has worked as a communications officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation during the summer of 2014)