Practicing Social Activism


First Nations identity

For Sr. Dorothy, language is at the core of identity. To this day she continues to serve on a committee to promote the Mi'kmaq language, believing that the loss of indigenous languages signifies the loss of cultural identity, in Cape Breton as elsewhere.

Language is just one of many interrelated elements of identity that Sr. Dorothy advocates. Another core component is tradition; she related the custom at the time a death occurs and the entire community comes together to help the family prepare the home to receive the body, bring food, and conduct a vigil. After the burial, a social event called a salité is held in which community members share food and donate precious items to be auctioned off to raise money for the bereaved family.

Now that she is an elder herself, Sr. Dorothy has gained a deeper understanding of the traditional regard for elders as sacred people, a designation she associates with honour and great respect. Perhaps because young people do not have the same sense of sacredness for elders today, she is committed to demonstrating the power in this tradition through her interactions with other elders, women in particular, and in the way she holds respect for the men.

The call of religion: God's doing, not mine

I don't know how to describe my spirituality except that I love God, and in loving God, I love everyone.

Describing herself as a renegade, Sr. Dorothy recalled the reaction of community when she decided to join the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha. In response to being asked how one who had suffered, as she had at the hands of nuns at the residential school, could choose the very call that had "caused so much hurt and cruelty and misunderstanding of First Nations", she said simply that she was called by God. It was a summons that came within a context of spiritual life that had sustained her during many hard times growing up. The choice to enter a religious life was "God's doing, not mine".

Being a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha has provided Sr. Dorothy with lifelong support for all her activist ventures and provided inspiring role models as well:

They were the ones who educated me, they saw my potential and they saw my potential to be an educator myself. In Eskasoni, the Sisters worked with us, they walked with us. They were so accepting and friendly, and I wanted to be one of them.

Sr. Dorothy maintains that her religious life forms the core of her contributions to society. Having dealt with racism and cruelty at residential school and the pain of taunts and beatings, she found strength even then in her spiritual life. For her, it is the practices of prayer, meditation, and reading that form her spiritual identity and anchor all her actions, and she credits wisdom as a direct gift from a spiritual life that is the "carrier of today and tomorrow".

Education and empowerment

I am well versed in who I am as a First Nation person and that has carried me. That has been what has moved me to help others because I know the struggles. I've had those struggles, and I know how to overcome them and help other students to overcome them. And to keep in mind always: ‘don't go off the path in your journey, keep to your Mi'kmaw path'. I would like to leave that as a legacy in the same way as I speak of my father. I'm so grateful for the legacy he left which was the gift of my language.

The focus of Sr. Dorothy's activism has been educational. Her aim has always been to help others to reach their potential and encourage them to draw on their traditions and values and to be present to them when they need help. A key task here is is to maintain their inherited principles and values: "keep in mind our culture, keep in mind our language, keep in mind our traditional ways". She wants Mi'kmaq people to learn their language and understand their traditions to preserve their unique identity and enable them to educate others.

Early in her career Sr. Dorothy encountered the motto of "sink or swim" from Father Greg McLeod, a mentor at the University College of Cape Breton (UCCB)(Now University of Cape Breton), which she felt demonstrated his trust in her and therefore was empowering. As a result, she promotes self-reliance in others through the use of encouragement and humour. "I see myself as someone who continues to affirm others and to encourage them never to give up on themselves. I see myself as using my sense of humour – Mi'kmaq have a wonderful sense of humour".

Forming her leadership

With a reputation for being charismatic, intelligent, and intuitive, Sr. Dorothy proved herself as a strong assertive leader who can argue effectively. In her own view, one of her greatest assets as a leader is her ability to speak her language. Others recognize her for being able to make a connection through language:

To go to someone of my age, sometimes younger, and break out into my own language, I think that's powerful. I'll ask a little young child, Elnuisin? -- which means, "Do you speak our language?", and if they say, Ayay! ("Yes"), I am so happy. Here is our future generation keeping us alive!

Her vigilance on this issue was demonstrated when she sat on a committee to draft a racism policy. The language claim for French as the first language in Nova Scotia was put forward, but Sr. Dorothy maintained that Mi'kmaw was the first language. No-one representing the relevant government department would agree to her claim until she said, "If you can't accept the true fact that we were here long before the first French vessel arrived, well then you can't accept me, and if you cannot accept me as a Mi'kmaq, then I don't have a place at this table".

Respected for her spirituality and strong connection to her culture, Sr. Dorothy's wisdom has been recognized by many people, First Nation and others alike. She acknowledges the energy of being recognized as "supportive, and keeps me going".

Her self-declared motto is, "Link to the past, focus on the future as we deal with the present" – a motto that has guided all her actions from helping students to developing First Nations curriculum, teaching, and building a heritage centre. It is a deliberate means of keeping focused, "always being present and knowing who we are, always, always connected with the past, linking it with the present in order to prepare for the future… the word "present" I'm using in a different sense".