Laurentian University chancellor Steve Paikin with graduate Donna Debassige and Laurentian University president, Dominic Giroux.

Laurentian University chancellor Steve Paikin with graduate Donna Debassige and Laurentian University president, Dominic Giroux.

By Rick Garrick

M’Chigeeng’s Donna Debassige found a new role after retiring in 2009 — she studied gerontology with the intention of providing advocacy for dementia patients. She also helped dementia patients by conversing in Anishinaabemowin with them.

“Their eyes would just light up when they heard the language,” says Debassige, who represents the Lake Huron region on the Anishinabek Nation Women’s Council. “If they were agitated, it just calmed them down. When you spoke the language with them, it was so obvious how much the language helped.”

Debassige says people often go back in time when they have dementia.

“When you go into your final stages, you become like a child,” Debassige says. “You go back to what you were then. That’s what you speak, is your original language.”

Debassige developed an interest in gerontology while caring for her husband at home after she retired. He passed away in 2014.

“He ended up going into a nursing home in Wikwemikong in 2012, so at that point I thought with all this time on my hands I might as well take these (university) courses I have earned and get a degree,” Debassige says. “When I went into the nursing home, I saw a lot of dementia in our people. I thought I have to find a way to help.”

So Debassige moved to Hanmer, near Sudbury, for one year in 2012 to study gerontology full-time at Laurentian University. She had already completed many university courses over the years while working at the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin (UCCM), so she only needed to complete the gerontology courses and a few others, including a science course, to earn a degree.

“A lot of it was understanding aging today,” Debassige says about the gerontology courses. “The course was more about aging well and how to eat properly.”

Debassige says the science course was tough.  “That was really difficult for me because all of my life I had concentrated on the business aspect instead of going into science and mathematics,” Debassige says. “I had a tough time with the science but I finally got it so I was able to graduate.”

Debassige graduated with a degree in Native Studies and Gerontology on Oct. 31. Now that she has her degree, she wants to volunteer in a nursing home to help dementia patients and their families.

“When my husband was going to go into the nursing home, I went one day ahead,” Debassige says. “I sat around in the lobby and just observed people. It was so heartbreaking to see how many people had dementia. There were people that were younger than me, some people I went to school with. It was very eye-opening.”

Debassige encourages people to continue learning throughout their life, noting that keeping the brain active can help prevent dementia.

“If people can find an interest, it becomes not hard work,” Debassige says about education. “It almost becomes fun to learn. I was like a sponge, just absorbing everything. To me it wasn’t hard work, it was very interesting.”

Debassige was appointed to the Anishinabek Nation Women’s Council in the early 2000s and has since worked to bring social, child welfare and violence against women issues to the forefront over the years.

“And myself personally, I was involved as soon as they started doing the newly-elected Grand Chief ceremony,” Debassige says. “We worked with (Grand Council Elder) Gordon Waindubence. We were quite involved in that.”

Debassige says the first Grand Council Chief ceremony she was involved with, held in Sand Point – on Lake Nipigon, when former Wasauksing Chief John Beaucage was re-elected as Grand Council Chief in 2006.

Debassige also represents the Anishinabek Nation on the Chiefs of Ontario First Nations Women’s Caucus and sits on the Justice Panel at the UCCM. Originally a Wikwemikong citizen, she became a M’Chigeeng citizen after marrying her husband.