Maggie MacDonnell has had several students tell her they created a suicide plan. But, they never followed through.
The reason? They developed social supports, and coping strategies, because of their relationship with her and involvement with programs she created in their fly-in village of Salluit, nestled in northern Quebec’s Inuit territory of Nunavik.
“That’s the value of what a teacher brings to a classroom,” says the winner of the 2017 Global Teacher Prize, who will be in Toronto Saturday to deliver the keynote speech at the annual conference of People for Education, a research and advocacy group.
“I feel humbled and connected because I also know those young people are doing amazing things too,” says MacDonnell. “I get to see myself now as interwoven into their story. And I know the people that they’ve saved and that they’ve positively affected. And I get to understand, on a very human scale, how connected all of our lives can be.”
The conference is about “public education’s role in creating a better world,” says Annie Kidder executive director of People for Education, noting MacDonnell’s work “totally exemplifies this.”
“For (MacDonnell), teaching is not just about staying inside the school and working on curriculum — it’s about the impact she and the school can have on kids’ lives and on the community they live in. She lives and breathes the connection between public education and the health and strength of the communities it serves.”
That connection started in 2010. Raised in rural Nova Scotia, near an Indigenous community, MacDonnell was well-aware of the injustices Indigenous people have faced. Plus, she had just spent five years working in international community development in East Africa, helping refugees, and had honed a set of skills she wanted to use in Canada’s Arctic.
“I thought as a Canadian I should really open my eyes to our own colonial issues right within our borders,” recalls MacDonnell, who moved north in 2010 to Ikusik School in Salluit, the second northernmost Inuit community in Quebec with a population of about 1,400.
Initially, she hoped to last a year or two in this isolated community, which experiences a high turnover rate for teachers. She had no idea how she would be received, “considering how education itself has been a tool in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people,” she says, referring to Canada’s residential school system. And, as an outsider, she didn’t know what she could contribute given the many challenges the community faces, such as addiction, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, a housing shortage, food insecurity and a suicide crisis, which she says are manifestations of intergenerational trauma rooted in colonialism.
“It was shocking to me to see those realities on a day-to-day basis here in Canada,” recalls MacDonnell. “I took a community approach to education and recognized young people could be agents of change and solutions in their community … A lot of the projects I did with my kids didn’t take place inside the classroom, they took place in the community.”
The key to getting projects off the ground was developing relationships with the mayor, councillors, elders and parents — and fundraising. Among them was building a fitness centre for the community — hunters used sleds to pull treadmills and elliptical trainers over the frozen tundra — and the creation of a running club. MacDonnell is a firm believer that physical activity builds resiliency in youth and can be used as a tool in suicide prevention.
She also created a community kitchen, where students make meals for elders, pregnant women and those who don’t have enough healthy food, and an in-school nutrition program, where they make healthy snacks for the entire student body. And she began life skills programs for girls, creating a safe and welcoming environment so that they stay in school and graduate.
“If my kids are food insecure how are we really going to get to learning? I need to address (the food insecurity),” she says. “There’s a suicide crisis where I work so we can talk about graduation rates all we want, but, literally, if kids are killing themselves they’re not going to graduate. So I need to work with my students and young people to see how we can be a part of a solution.”
Just last month, Nunavik’s school board, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, called an emergency meeting to deal with the suicide crisis, which has claimed at least 13 Inuit youth this year.
“I’m incredibly impatient with the lack of political action,” she says. “The Canadian government has been underfunding Inuit and other Indigenous groups for decades. That underfunding is a key reason why there’s so much struggle with achievement for young people in those regions.”
She says the secret to connecting with youth boils down to a teacher’s “interpersonal skills” and “an incredible amount of compassion.”
It’s good advice, seeing as her students nominated her for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize by the Varkey Foundation, a charity in the United Kingdom. The $1 million award — it’s paid out in equal instalments over a decade — is for an exceptional teacher who’s made an outstanding contribution. There were about 20,000 nominations from 179 countries — and stiff competition. But MacDonnell won, beating a teacher who works in Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, and one who works in a gang-ridden violent community in Brazil.
“A Canadian wins? I wish our stories were not that dramatic,” she says. “What is different between Canada, Kenya and Brazil is … we do have the resources to deal with this issue.”
Just this year, she says, there was a teacher shortage in Nunavut and Nunavik, noting, “This is Canada and we don’t have a teacher for a classroom?”
Since winning, she’s travelled abroad on speaking engagements — for instance, to Chile, Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, where she spoke at the United Nations — accompanied by students or youth from the region.
For the last year, she’s been in Nova Scotia with her husband while on maternity leave with their now 10-month-old daughter. They plan to return to Salluit when they’ve sorted out childcare arrangements, but in the meantime she is still in contact with students.
Some have visited her in Nova Scotia, to do runs and learn to kayak. With her prize money, MacDonnell has grown the running club into a regional one — the runners are actually headed to the Cayman Islands next month to run in a half marathon. And, she started an organization called Qajaq/Kayak to revitalize the connection between Inuit youth and the kayak, which was invented by the Inuit and is called qajaq in Inuktitut.
MacDonnell has paid for kayaks, gear, instructors and all the costs associated with flying youth down to Nova Scotia, where they learn to paddle in warmer and calmer waters.
“There’s not a lot of Inuit kayakers out there now because the culture has been so lost due to, in part, colonization,” says MacDonnell, who’s determined to change that. There are plans to start teaching youth how to build traditional kayaks and to visit Greenland and connect with Inuit paddlers there.
“If we invest properly in young people, and invest properly in education we’ll see amazing results,” she says.
It’s a message she will share on Saturday with teachers, parents, trustees, academics and policy-makers from across Canada. At the conference, there will be workshops on various topics, such as redesigning Ontario report cards, creating a students’ bill of rights, improving discussions about race and using Indigenous expertise to develop curriculum. And, there will be a panel discussion on changing the way we think about equity, moderated by the Toronto Star’s race and gender columnist Shree Paradkar, who is the recipient of the 2018-2019 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, and is investigating the failure of educators in providing equitable outcomes for racialized and Indigenous students.
Kidder says the conference is an opportunity to “bring people together to wrestle with the ‘wicked problems’ — and (MacDonnell’s) experience and what she’s learned will help everyone with both the ‘wrestling’ and with providing a launching pad for moving forward.”
Saturday’s conference runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, at 175 George St., and costs $75.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74