Shirley Williams receiving her Doctor of Laws. Photo by Georgie Horton-Baptiste.

By Julie Kapyrka

PETERBOROUGH –   On June 9, 2017 Shirley Williams will receive one of the highest honours from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Oshawa, Ontario – an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. This degree acknowledges her academic achievements in the advancement of Anishinaabemowin and Anishinaabe culture, philosophy and pedagogy. Notably, Shirley has been recognized for her understanding and contribution of Indigenous Knowledge, measured in its own right, at the highest levels of academic achievement.

Shirley Ida Williams is Bird Clan, from Wikwemikong First Nation and she credits her parents and elders not only for teaching her the language and knowledge of her people but also for motivating her to teach the language and giving her the framework upon which to do so. Shirley went on to receive her B.A. in Indigenous Studies from Trent University, Diplomas from the Native Languages Instructor Program at Lakehead University and Curriculum Development Program at the University of Oklahoma, and a Master’s in Environmental Studies from York University. She joined the Department of Indigenous Studies at Trent University in 1986 to develop and teach language programs.

Williams became the first Indigenous individual in Canada to achieve the rank of full professor based on her Traditional Indigenous Knowledge. She taught Anishinaabemowin courses for many years, and continues to contribute to curriculum development and delivery with regard to language education on-the-land courses. Shirley has also written several language books including a seminal introductory textbook for Anishinaabemowin instruction. She has lectured across Canada promoting Anishinaabe language and culture and worked on many language training and translation projects for Heritage Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Education, Department of Indian Affairs and other national organizations.

Although she retired in 2004, Williams sits as an Elder and Cultural Advisor for Trent University, Fleming College, UOIT, Durham College, and the Chiefs of Ontario. Maybe there is no word for ‘retire’ in Anishinaabemowin?

Williams is also a residential school survivor, and her transformative educational experience is nothing short of remarkable. Her passion for her people and her language and culture spurned her on to show the world the depth and beauty of Anishinaabemowin. Williams recalls her times at residential school:

“While we were in there we were always told that we would never amount to anything. As an ‘Indian girl’ we were told we were considered savages, and too dumb to go on to any further education. We were never encouraged to pursue our education. All we were ever supported in doing was to join the convent and become a nun. Why would we do that when they told us that we would never amount to anything and that we would never teach or use our language and culture, that in fact it was witchcraft?  So I wanted to prove to them that we were as smart as anyone else and that we could further our education. I used to say to myself: ‘I will show you!’ I never imagined though that I would achieve as much as I have but I kept on taking correspondence courses, night courses, and adult education courses. My parents wanted me to learn about the Indian Act and about the treaties that govern our nation and then come back to them and teach them about such things.

“I never really learned about the treaties until I took Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Indigenous Studies is what helped me to restore my dignity, my culture, my identity and to take pride in what was taken away from me through colonization and assimilation practises. I also learned that I was part of this history, that I bore witness and experiences in these processes, and how it affected me as a human being.”

When asked about what inspired her as a young adult, Williams responded that her big sister was her role model. Her sister went on from residential school to become a nurse and she had often thought: “If my sister can do that, so can I!” Williams was also motivated by many of the girls from residential school who went on to higher education, such as the late Delma Cooper who was a VON nurse and a Director of Wigwamen Native Housing.

Her decision to pursue research and studies on the language stemmed from two incidences. The first was when she attended a workshop as part of her language instructor’s diploma. She recalled an Elder speaking about how the youth could no longer understand them because the children only spoke English and that the youth’s connection to their culture was disappearing. And the second incident was something her mom used to always say: ‘When we leave this world, the Creator is going to ask: What have you done for your community? How did you contribute?’ So we need to prepare ourselves so we can have a good story of what we did.”

Williams said she got to thinking: “Well, what have I done for my community? I thought, I know a little bit about our language and culture, I better get myself back to school. And so that’s what I did.”

She offers some kind inspiring words for the youth today:

“Education is very important and you must continue to go on. My father always said, never give up, if you don’t succeed, try again – get up, brush yourself off, have a good cry (those tears will help cleanse the toxins in your body), and then go try again!  Failing is a lesson and nothing to be ashamed of, don’t let it get to you. A second time around you will come to understand yourself, you will learn about yourself. Education often times teaches us to be like ‘the other’, but in our Indigenous Knowledge – it teaches us to be who we are, it also teaches us about who we are, where we came from and where we are going. Learn to have fun in education, because education should be fun. And if you become a teacher, you will have a chance to make a lasting change. Be honest, be truthful, be curious and investigate, for you will always learn something new and exciting. And always include spirit in your life. Without spirit, we are nothing. It is the spirit that will help you along, you can always depend on it.”

Williams praises her parents for teaching her important life lessons: “To never give up and to look at education (school) as work. As my father used to say, ‘No work, no pay’.”  She says her father taught her that hard work pays off: “So when we get education and we appreciate what we learn, it is part of growth. We are then better able to do whatever is needed and to contribute in society.”

Williams says that receiving this degree means a great deal to her: “I have always wanted to continue my education and what a great gift and recognition this is. Being granted a PhD means that my knowledge and experience has been accredited in that I am receiving one of the highest degrees in the academy. It is a great honor and I thank those who nominated me. What a surprise!”

Strong will, determination, pride, perseverance, commitment, passion, and hard work. Shirley Williams has truly created a legendary presence on the advancement of Anishinaabe language and culture. This Doctor of Laws degree celebrates and honours her contribution and achievement.