Verna J. Kirkness, LL.D., May 29, 2008

Verna J. Kirkness
C.M., D.C.; B.A. (Man.); B. Ed. (Man); M. Ed. (Man.); LL.D. (Br.C0D; LL.D. (WOnt.); D.Litt. (Mt.St.Vin.)

Today, we honour Verna J. Kirkness, a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, a distinguished alumnus of the University of Manitoba, and national leader in education in Canada who has inspired countless students and educators in both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal communities and who through her vision and determination has successfully established new institutions that will contribute to excellence in Aboriginal education for future generations.

Verna Kirkness received her Teaching Certificate from The Manitoba Normal School in 1959, and her Bachelor of Arts (1974), Bachelor of Education (1976) and Master of Education (1980) degrees from the University of Manitoba.

Verna Kirkness started her teaching career as an elementary school teacher in Manitoba's public school system before working as both a teacher and principal in First Nations schools. In the late 1960s, as Elementary Schools Supervisor with Frontier School Division, she was instrumental in making Cree and Djibway the language of instruction in several Manitoba schools. In the early 1970s as Education Director for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and then Education Director for the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) she assisted in developing and implementing both the influential publication of the Manitoba Chiefs, Wahbung: Our Tomorrows and the landmark 1972 national policy of Indian Control of Indian Education. These two major works have shaped the educational agendas of First Nations education in our province and our country for more than 35 years.

On completing her Master of Education degree in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in 1980, Verna Kirkness continued her successful career teaching at the university level, becoming an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 1984 she was appointed Director of the Native Teacher Education Program at UBC -- which under her leadership became one of the most successful such programs in the country - and Head of the Ts’kel Graduate Program (which she founded).

In the late 1980s Verna Kirkness was a prime mover in the establishment of the First Nations House of Learning on the campus of UBC and served as its first Director from 1987 to 1993. During that time she spearheaded and coordinated a major public/private $2 million fundraising campaign to build a First Nations House of  Learning longhouse which opened in 1993 and which serves as an important focal point for First Nations students at the University of British Columbia.

Verna Kirkness has been a scholar as well as a teacher and administrator. She has written and edited six books and has published numerous articles on Aboriginal education in academic journals in Canada and internationally. She is a founding member and former president of the Mokakit Indian Education Research Association.

Verna Kirkness' work was recognized by the University of British Columbia in 1994 when she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. More recently, returning home to Manitoba, Verna Kirkness has remained a tireless advocate for Aboriginal education. She has been influential in the planning and creation of The University College of the North in Manitoba, and at the University of Manitoba has led a successful and ongoing effort by the Faculty of Graduate Studies to recruit Aboriginal scholars into Ph.D. studies at the University.

The work of this University of Manitoba graduate in the field of Aboriginal education in Manitoba and in British Columbia is without parallel. For more than four decades she has been a major spokesperson for Aboriginal education. This work has been recognized in numerous honours and awards. Verna Kirkness is a member of the Order of Manitoba (2007) and the Order of Canada (1998). She was awarded The Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2003, and in addition to her Honorary degree from the University of British Columbia, has received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario (1992) and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University (1990).

Mr. Chancellor, it is my honour and privilege to ask, in the name of the Senate of the University of Manitoba, that you confer upon Verna J. Kirkness the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

-citation delivered by mentor, Dr. Jonathan Young, Acting Dean of Education

Verna J. Kirkness