By Waub Rice
OTTAWA –My aunt Elaine Rose Kelly, also known as Shawishkokeeshigogue (Blue Sky Woman), died suddenly on Wednesday morning (May 8) at the age of 60. She was in North Bay, getting ready to go teach, when she had a heart attack. It has been a shocking, immeasurable loss for her entire family, but in these days of immense grief we take great pride in all of her accomplishments and everything that she was. She dedicated her life to education and advocated for Anishinaabe children in the classroom. She was also a devoted member of the Midewiwin way of life and extolled the many beautiful virtues of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality. On top of so many other admirable attributes, she epitomized everything about being an extraordinary teacher and a person. Along with so many other young people, she helped make me who I am today, and I will continue to be thankful and honour her for the rest of my life.
Growing up in our community of Wasauksing, Elaine was thrust into a leadership role early in life. Her father (my grandfather) died in a boating accident when she was just seven years old. In the years that followed, she became a role model and family leader to her six younger siblings, including my dad. My grandmother, Aileen Rice, instilled the value of education early in her children, and that set Elaine on her pioneering path as a student and eventually as a teacher. As a high school student in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Parry Sound, she fought to take humanities classes at a time when First Nations students were placed only in the vocational stream. She then went on to the University of Toronto, when First Nations students in post-secondary education in Canada were extremely rare. She eventually got her Master’s degree in education.
A long career teaching in communities across Ontario followed. She returned to Wasauksing in the early 1980s to teach at what was then called Ryerson Indian Day School. That’s where I began my education journey, along with Auntie’s daughter Marion and many of our cousins and friends. She helped expand it beyond a kindergarten-only school. Prior to that, children were bussed into public school in Parry Sound after finishing their two years at “The Little Red School House.” Thanks to the vision and collective hard work of our community, the school was renamed Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik, and I was fortunate to graduate from Grade 8 there.
That’s just one of the many gifts Elaine gave me on this path. Not only did a learn invaluable lessons from her as my Aunt, she was also my teacher from Grades 1 through 4. She was the person who taught me how to read and write. Today, as an author and a journalist, I make my living thanks to those initial skills and gifts that came from her. It’s incredibly heartwarming and an indescribable honour to be able to carry that with me for the rest of my life.
And Auntie Elaine kept fostering that passion for words and stories within me well beyond our time together in the classroom. She continued to give me books for my birthday – everything from history to anthropology to politics to literature – right up until I turned 34 last month. The subjects of those books were always Indigenous. She wanted to ensure that I knew as much as possible about being Anishinaabe, and she wanted me to be proud of it. So many children, youth, and adults benefited from her enthusiasm and her passion to teach and share the culture.
My Auntie had an extremely deep love for the Anishinaabe way of life, especially being Midewiwin. She was a Third Degree Mide in the Lodge, and enthusiastically supported and shared those beautiful traditional teachings. As such, she was incredibly loved and respected in traditional circles across Anishinaabe country. She truly embodied all of the great virtues extolled in that way of life: love, respect, truth, humility, wisdom, honesty, and bravery. She carried an incredible amount of knowledge with her, but she did so in a very humble way.
Above all, there was unrivalled kindness and strength in her spirit. She exuded love, and being in her presence was enough to heal and learn. She had an unmistakable laugh that will echo in thousands of ears for decades to come. Her bright, wide smile often made her eyes disappear, and that beautiful image is forever imprinted on my mind. Her ultimate legacy, though, is the successful education of all of our young people. She fought so hard to make sure First Nations children had all the same opportunities and achievements as non-Aboriginal students. She would say that each accomplishment in the classroom is a victory for all of us. She saw those victories as important steps forward in living on this land in a beautiful and positive way with everyone else. As such, her important and incomparable work will never die.
And for me, her legacy lives on in the words I have written, and in the words that I will write.
G’gaawaabmin miinwaa Zhaawshkogiizhgokwe, g’zaagin.
Waubgeshig Rice, Wasauksing First Nation, is a CBC journalist in Ottawa. This tribute to his Aunt Elaine appears on his blog.