Childhood and Early Influences: “Jumping the Fence”
Sister Dorothy Moore's activism arose from her childhood as a First Nation woman. Growing up on a Mi'kmaw reserve, Dorothy was surrounded by people who understood and enjoyed one another, sharing a common language and culture. It was in the interface with a larger non-native community that racism reared its head, inflicting “many hurts because of how I spoke, how I looked, and where I was from”. Her first act of resistance was what she called “jumping the fence” – leaving her own community after years of inconsistent schooling that culminated with Grade 6, the highest level offered by the school in Membertou. She wanted more education.
Dorothy attended the school at Eskasoni for one year, and then, in 1949, became the first Mi'kmaw person to attend public school in Sydney. In Grade 8, struggling to support herself and borrowing books to get by, she was helped by a supportive teacher who was a nun. But in Grade 9 when her understanding of English interfered with completion of an assignment, Dorothy was told “to go home to the backwoods where you belonged and not to ever come back." She did go home, but her kind Grade 8 teacher arranged for her to go to Mabou, a boarding school in Inverness County, where she continued her schooling for two years, When she enrolled in the high school in Sydney she once more found herself to be a “first” Aboriginal person who had ever attended that school.
Driven to prove to herself and others that she was not who she was labelled to be, Dorothy led her Grade 9 class academically in Mabou, and while this did not mitigate financial and other kinds of hardship, her motivation emerged powerfully from the sense that she had “a God-given right to get an education”:
And I’m going to get it, even though my parents are saying, 'No, you don’t belong there!' – and even though my teachers were not so cooperative and not so kind to help me along, I had friends who were. Thank God for that! And I think I had my own personal insistence to say, I’m going to do it! I am going to do it!
Obtaining the highest marks in her class provided the affirmation she needed. Dorothy knew she was intelligent and that her sense of being “well versed” in who she was as a Mi’kmaw carried her; a strong sense of identity, resourcefulness and perseverance against the odds.
Life choice and identity
After she completed Grade 11 and passed her provincial exams, Dorothy decided to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha. Her parents were not supportive, but her father signed the letter of application knowing Dorothy would soon be of an age to make up her own mind and that she was determined to go into the Congregation. And indeed, Sr. Dorothy said that “she never turned back” after entering this Congregation in 1954. After two years of preparation, she took her “profession”, the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The Congregation sent Sr. Dorothy off to finish high school and then to Teachers' College, where she received a Certificate of Education and began her teaching career at the age of 25. After teaching in Alberta for a time, she returned to full-time study at St. Francis Xavier University and obtained her B.A. and B.Ed. degrees.
Returning to the First Nations community at Eskasoni to teach, Sr. Dorothy was elated:
I was so happy to be back. I hadn’t realized just what it was to be living among my own people; I had forgotten after so many years. Before going to Eskasoni, I wore a nun’s habit, so I could hide in that and not too many people knew I was a Mi’kmaw or a native person, and that was OK with me. But then in 1974, I went to Eskasoni because the community wanted me to be one of the teachers in their school.
Sr. Dorothy spoke of her father’s pride in her and how on the very first day of her teaching in Eskasoni he suffered a massive heart attack, and died. This was a shock that turned her life around:
It really woke me up and that’s why I always claim that on that day I was a born-again Mi’kmaw, because I wanted to be everything that my father stood for. He was so proud of who he was, he always insisted we speak our language, he loved his culture, his traditions, the values, and he promoted them with us. I kind of ignored them for a long time because I failed to see the value and worth of being a First Nation person, mostly because of the racism directed toward me.