Navigating the Highs and Lows: A Lifetime of Helping Others Learn


Sister Dorothy considers her current involvements as her third "kick at the can" which is how she has helped advance the education of Mi'kmaq people. The first "kick" was her work at UCCB from 1984 to 1995 and the second as a Mi'kmaw consultant to the Nova Scotia Department of Education, then Director of Mi'kmaq Education Services when the position was developed, from 1995 to 2002, a role she has continued by service on various committees.

Phase One: UCCB

When Sr. Dorothy was principal of Eskasoni Elementary Junior High School, she was diagnosed with cancer and had to leave her position. On her recovery, she completed a Master's degree in educational psychology (to better meet the needs of her students) from Mount St. Vincent, winning her degree in 1984.

After this, in a position at Cape Breton University where she worked with Mi'kmaq students, she perceived them as struggling students challenged with very low self-esteem.

You always knew a native student because of how they walked, you knew their self-image was very, very low, they weren't achieving well. I gathered them, looked at their courses with one of the Deans and switched a lot of the courses. They started their new agendas in January and I walked with them to make sure that they were doing OK. That's exactly what I did: I walked with them. I would ask, 'Do you know how to work in the library? Let's go to the library'.

In this hands-on mentoring, Sr. Dorothy helped hundreds of students between 1984 and 1995, leaving no stone unturned when it related to helping a student overcome a problem, following up students who were missing until she determined what was going on with them. Each year, at the end of the university term, we celebrated their successes and achievements by hosting a banquet and a dance, which continues to this day.

Sr. Dorothy developed several undergraduate courses of relevance to Mi'kmaq students, including language and Native Studies courses. From one half-credit course, she built a broad program of courses and First Nations students are now enrolled in other programs as well at UCCB. Many have gone on to become lawyers, social workers, and teachers; several have achieved the Dean's list.

In the late 1980s Sr. Dorothy worked with two professors at UCCB to develop a course called Structural Comparisons to help Mi'kmaq students understand the differences between English and Mi'kmaq in an effort to bridge the two languages. The course was presented to the appropriate UCCB committee for approval but it was refused. Sr. Dorothy tried again, but experienced the committee to be resistant and discriminatory. Her presentation then, of additional reasoned arguments to the committee, won the day and the course was finally approved. 'Structural Comparisons' still runs today at Cape Breton University, 30 years later. Many Mi'kmaq students gravitate to that course because it is so helpful to them.

This and other experiences have led Sr. Dorothy to attribute barriers of prejudice to a lack of awareness and education, beginning in a school system that offers very little positive information on First Nations cultures and, worse, promotes a sense of inferiority. This mindset and self-denial of success exists as an internalized barrier in First Nations students. When an attitude exists that First Nations are equal to any other nation, she believes things will improve. The means for such success is education, "the key to moving us upward".

By the time Sr. Dorothy left UCCB in 1995, over 200 students were benefitting from the program and busloads of students from Native schools all over Nova Scotia were attending transition courses. First Nations communities continue to celebrate the success of their students to this day because many graduates have returned to their home communities to be employed, for example, as teachers, lawyers and accountants.

Phase Two: Nova Scotia Department of Education

In 1995, things were going well with the UCCB program and students who had graduated had completed their Masters and returned to teach. There was someone ready to take Sr. Dorothy's place and it was time, in her words, for "one last quick kick at the can".

Her next move was to a position of Mi'kmaw Consultant at the Department of Education in Halifax where she began working on a course in Mi'kmaw history for use in Grade 10 classes that is still in use today. Sr. Dorothy then developed a Grade 7 Mi'kmaw language course, also in conjunction with a Mi'kmaw-fluent educator, language speakers and writers. A Grade 8 course was completed and the curriculum for Grade 9 is underway. Additionally, a distance education course was offered through videoconferencing, making it possible for students from Indian Brook, 350 km away, to work with the course teacher based in Sydney. Presentations for school In-Services, professional development, talks on Mi'kmaw history, culture, racism and spirituality contributed during this period to Sr. Dorothy's repertoire of social activism, promoting a better understanding of the Mi'kmaq people.

Phase Three: Continuing Influence

Today, at the age of 77, Sr. Dorothy not only serves on numerous committees and boards, but she has been on the Human Rights Commission for several years and is Chair of the Advisory Committee for the Order of Nova Scotia. She continues to promote the Mi'kmaw language and pursue development of a museum and cultural centre in Debert and Membertou to bring alive the history and way of life of the Mi'kmaq people. "It's going to be wonderful for others to come in and learn, get their curiosity going and leave to say, Oh my gosh, those people are beautiful!"

Last words

The one gift that has been told to me often is my voice and how I use it, which seems to always bring about calm and serenity.

Sr. Dorothy would like to be remembered as "a good Sister of St. Martha who was faithful to her life but most of all she was faithful to who she was as a Mi'kmaw". Although she is adamant that she is "not good all the time" she would like to be known as being ‘good ‘in the sense that sometimes it means doing something unpopular, walking the lonely path to look for the "something that is right ethically". Even when others may have felt she was not nice or good, she knows in her heart she did the right thing.

An example of an ethical dilemma around the definition of being "good" that Sr. Dorothy offers is the award of the Order of Canada to Henry Morgentaler. It would be easy, she says, to "cave in and join the people who were against Morgentaler getting that award, but women who understand women's issues and problems would say that this man did a lot to help them and therefore he needs to get recognized. It is appropriate". This is one of the two reasons why she would never give back her own Order of Canada medal ; the other is that she accepts recognition for her work that "promoted education and gave life to many of our people and will continue to give life".

Sister Dorothy has been called a role model. She does not consider it a burden, for "I am who I am".