Canadian teacher wins $1M for her work with Arctic Inuit community

Maggie MacDonnell (centre) accepts the Global Teacher award in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, on March 19, 2017. (The Global Teacher Award)
A Canadian teacher has won one of the most coveted global teaching prizes worth $1 million US for her work in a remote Inuit community in northern Quebec.

​Maggie MacDonnell, who grew up in rural Nova Scotia and worked in sub-Saharan Africa before accepting a teaching position in the tiny fly-in Arctic community of Salluit, was one of 10 finalists shortlisted from among 20,000 nominees for the 2017 Global Teaching Prize.

The prize, awarded annually by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation since 2015, has become one of the most high-profile awards for teaching excellence.

MacDonnell has “made an outstanding contribution to the lives of her students and everyone in Salluit,” the foundation said in a statement.

“It’s just so wonderful, so fantastic, I’m so proud of my students of the way they’ve been here in Dubai,” MacDonnell, who was accompanied by some of her students, told reporters after her name was announced at a gala at the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai. “I’m so happy for the Inuit region of Nunavik and I’m generally overwhelmed.”

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet made the announcement from the International Space Station.

MacDonnell also received prerecorded congratulations from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Prince Harry.

It takes a very dedicated teacher to work in the remote Inuit region in northern Quebec. There is a high teacher turnover with many teachers going on stress leave, overwhelmed by the isolation and the difficult social problems facing the small community.

Salluit, which has a population of just over 1,350 witnessed six suicides in 2015, all affecting young males between the ages of 18 and 25.

“Witnessing the funerals of my students is one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone to,” MacDonnell said in a short video prepared by the Varkey Foundation. “And I never want to be in that position again.”

Nunavik is also struggling with high rates or teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse, the legacy of colonialism and the Indian Residential School system that uprooted generations of Indigenous Canadians, robbing them of their cultural identity and normal family life.

To help her students cope with the challenges facing their community and their families, MacDonnell created a life skills program geared for girls. The life skills taught at the program range from bike repair to construction. MacDonnell’s initiative saw a 500-per-cent improvement in registration into life skills programs previously dominated by boys.

In a community where healthy recreational options are limited, MacDonnell and her students built a fitness centre, the foundation said. MacDonnell also created a community kitchen and a second-hand store that benefited not only her students but also the general population, the organization said.

“I think as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends. The school doors may close—but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them,” MacDonnell said.

She also created a partnership with the daycare centre where her students would work in the classrooms with experienced day care workers to gain valuable on the job mentorship and improve their understanding of early childhood education, the foundation said.

MacDonnell also secured over $20,000 for an in-school nutrition program where students prepare healthy snacks for their fellow students.

Her students have also raised nearly $40,000 for diabetes prevention.

And on top of all this MacDonnell has also been a temporary foster parent.

“On three separate occasions I have had students come to thank me for saving their life,” MacDonnell said. “All of them had gone through difficult times when losing friends and family to suicide as well as experiencing other traumas in their life. Each of them had reached out to me in some way when they were battling their own thoughts of suicide.”

Her dream is to establish an environmental stewardship program and help Inuit youth to reconnect with their cultural traditions, MacDonnell said.

She’ll use part of her prize money to set up an NGO, MacDonnell said. She wants to create a kayak program so Inuit can access the land more easily and affordably, in an effort to counter some of the effects of colonialism, MacDonnell told CBC News.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Losing their Words (Video documentary), Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  English language dominance worries language teachers in Finland, Yle News

Greenland: (VIDEO) The importance of perserving the Inuit language, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Sami languages disappear, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden:  Sami abused in Sweden’s church-run schools, Radio Sweden

Russia:  PHOTO REPORT: Tundra children return from school, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska folk schools offer lessons in countering ‘convenience culture’, Alaska Dispatch News

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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