Verna J. Kirkness, C.M., O.M.
Verna Jane Kirkness is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, pioneer and lifelong advocate of excellence in Indigenous education who has been influential in Canadian Indigenous policy and practice. She has inspired countless students and educators in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and furthered institutions of distinction in Indigenous education for future generations.
It all began as a childhood dream for Kirkness who loved school and secretly dreamed of becoming a teacher. With no role models, over the course of her education on the reserve, she managed to keep her dream alive by becoming a teacher, a principal, a counsellor, a supervisor of schools, a curriculum consultant, then entering the area of policy development in the 1970s. She became the first education director of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) followed by her position as education director for the National Indian Brotherhood (Assembly of First Nations). With these organizations she played a key role in developing new directions in both the policies of the Manitoba Chiefs, Wahbung: Our Tomorrows (1971) and in 1972 national landmark policy of Indian Control of Indian Education. These two major works have shaped the educational agenda of First Nations education in Manitoba and across the country to the present day.
In 1981, Kirkness continued her career at the University of British Columbia as the Director of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program. This led to other appointments where she worked to extend new programs, cultural enrichment, access and support services to Indigenous students. She created the Ts”kel Graduate Program and became the first director of the First Nations House of Learning and was instrumental in the conception and construction of the First Nations Longhouse, which serves as a home away from home for Indigenous students. She is an associate professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia.
Kirkness is the author of several books including her autobiography: Creating Space, My Life and Work in Indigenous Education (2013). As well, she has contributed chapters to books and articles in a number of education journals in Canada and internationally. Probably the most widely read is the article co-authored with Dr. Ray Barnhardt entitled First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R’s - Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility first published in 1993 in Knowledge Across Cultures: Universities East and West, published in English, French and Chinese.
Kirkness has received numerous awards spanning more than five decades. Among them are the Golden Eagle Feather Award (1988) Canadian Educator of the Year (1990), National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1994), Canadian Who’s Who (2001), Order of Canada (1998), Order of Manitoba (2007), the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (2012) and honorary doctorates. The Verna J. Kirkness Institute of Higher Learning at Fisher River (2002) and Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program have been named in her honor (2008). Among the honours she has received are Eagle Feathers, the highest honour conferred by Aboriginal people.