A distinguished Indigenous leader and inspirational role model in the field of public education, Elder Mary Courchene generously offers her guidance and courage on our shared journey toward truth and reconciliation.
Drawing from her own painful experiences as a Residential School Survivor, she seeks to build understanding that brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together to learn, heal and grow.
She was born in Sagkeeng First Nation, where she enjoyed a happy childhood until she was sent to the Fort Alexander Residential School at the age of five. Isolated from her family, she endured years of devastating loneliness. A bright light emerged in Grade 7 when a supportive teacher instilled within her a confidence in her academic abilities. She began to see her own potential, and gained a love of learning.
Years later, following marriage and seven children, this love of education would be rekindled. Although she had not completed high school, she reached out to Brandon University to apply for a special program. Her dream of a university education was fulfilled when she received her acceptance letter. She would go on to become one of the first Indigenous students to pursue multiple degrees from both Brandon University and the University of Manitoba.
She was soon at the forefront of Indigenous programming in the public school system. During a career that spanned more than three decades, she was the first Indigenous administrator in Winnipeg School Division, the inaugural principal of Children of the Earth School (the first Indigenous-focused, urban high school in Canada), and the first female dean of Aboriginal education at Red River College. She also co-founded Aboriginal Circle of Educators in 1987 and the Manitoba First Nations Educational Centre in 1998.
Over the years, she has earned numerous awards and honours, including the YM-YWCA Women of Distinction Award, Aboriginal Community Educator of the Year, Aboriginal Circle of Educators Innovator Trailblazer Award, and Aboriginal Educator of the Year (Canadian Teachers Federation). She is an honored grandmother of Keep the Fires Burning, and has been awarded a sacred shawl and community recognition.
In 2008, she was among the 100 survivors invited to the House of Commons to witness the Canadian government’s historic apology for its role in Residential Schools. Today, she continues to speak about the intergenerational impacts of residential schools, often with her daughter and granddaughter at her side.
The University of Manitoba is proud to award a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, to Elder Mary Elizabeth Courchene, an innovator and role model who has left a positive imprint on the landscape of public education in Manitoba.
Elder Mary Elizabeth Courchene