By Rick Garrick
THUNDER BAY — Lakehead University has recognized their “walking history book” with an Alumni Honour Award.
“I feel like I’m a walking history book on Native education,” says Dolores Wawia, an assistant professor at Lakehead and the first Aboriginal woman to earn a BA and M.Ed in northwestern Ontario. “When I started, (Native education) was nothing but a two-word concept and I’ve seen it all. Not quite all of it, there’s lots more to take place.”
Wawia says there were only two other First Nation students at Lakehead when she began her studies, and now there are about 1,200.
“In my family, there are six of us with 15 degrees,” Wawia says, noting she was the oldest child in her family and a role model for her siblings. “And they’re all gainfully employed. That’s because I did it, I was the first one, and one brother said if she can do it, so can I.”
Wawia was honoured with the Alumni Honour Award during Lakehead’s 2013 convocation ceremonies, held May 30-June 1 at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium.
In addition to working with Lakehead’s Native Teacher Education Program since its beginning in 1975, Wawia also helped set up McMaster University’s Indigenous Studies Program from 1994-96.
“I helped to implement the first Native studies course in 1984 — it was called Contemporary Issues — for all student teachers, Native or non-Native,” Wawia says. “Mostly non-Native, because they didn’t know how to teach Native children.”
Wawia was surprised when informed about the Alumni Honour Award.
“What the hell did I do — I was just doing my work,” Wawia says. “That’s what Native people do; when they see a need they just work. They don’t do it for recognition or whatever. They see a need, they do it.”
Although she could have retired four years ago at age 65, Wawia refused to give up the career she worked so hard to achieve and still enjoys.
“A couple of more years though, I’ll be ready,” Wawia says. “What keeps me going is doing what I’m doing.”
Wawia looks forward to teaching theory this summer during Lakehead’s Native Language Program.
“I teach in a classroom of 35 and the students are anywhere from Grade 4 to university,” Wawia says. “I taught Isadore (Toulouse), when he first came along. I’ve taught all these people.”
Wawia is currently working on a book about her education journey: From Teepee to Penthouse. She lived in a tent as a child while picking blueberries, attended university after leaving an abusive relationship and lived in a high-rise apartment building while working at McMaster.
“I’ve got seven chapters done out of 12,” she says. “Hopefully it will help other Native young people to go forward.”
Wawia plans to start up the Frog Lady Tea House in Thunder Bay once she retires, noting her mother named her Frog Lady after she saw a frog as a baby.