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Denise Augustine

Denise Augustine standing outdoors
  • Category: Indigenous Community Alumni Award
  • UVic degree: Bachelor of Education in Music, 1990
  • Current hometown: Duncan, BC         
  • Birthplace: Victoria, BC

About Denise

A hul’q’umi’num woman of mixed ancestry and a graduate of UVic’s teaching program in music education, Denise Augustine has been an educator in the Cowichan Valley for over 20 years. As director of Indigenous education in the Cowichan School District, she worked closely with teachers, administrators and support staff in bringing transformational change to the education system. Weaving story, history and research together in experiential workshops, she invites adults to imagine community that values diversity, inclusiveness, inspires innovation and advances Reconciliation. She was recently appointed the Superintendent of Indigenous Education for the BC Ministry of Education and Child Care where she works with First Peoples, communities and school districts across the province to champion the work of equity for Indigenous learners. Beyond BC, her equity-focussed leadership with Harvard University’s Deeper Learning Project has influenced the work of school districts across North America.

What's your favourite memory of being a UVic student?

I’m the oldest of seven and the first to go to university. In my third year, my mom was apprenticing with master carver Simon Charlie, and she asked me to go to the library to get any books that I could find with Coast Salish history or stories. There wasn’t a lot, but the librarian was so amazing. She spent all the time we needed and we found what we could. The most helpful book was a library reference book, so I couldn’t take it out of the library. She set me up so that I could photocopy what I needed… and it provided some important information… I come from a family of artists—the Marstons, my mom, Jane, and siblings Angela, Luke and John Marston—who use visual arts as their form of telling stories. So the stories the librarian helped me find that day were really important to mom, to me, and to the family.

How did your experiences at UVic shape who you are or contribute to future successes?

I’m white passing. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I publicly identified as First Nations. I’ve always known who I am and where I come from, and I didn’t feel the need to explain it to others until one day when I was sitting around the table with a student advisory group meeting with a several education profs. The way that folks were talking about First Nation learners specifically and First Nations people in general just made me more and more uncomfortable. I challenged them. “I’m First Nations and I actually don’t agree with the comments you’re making.” I remember the conversation stopping and then people trying to recover. And I think that moment set me on the path to do the work that I do, which is so much about challenging folks to listen to more than one truth and bridging conversations so that people can better understand and appreciate each other.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

The things I’m most proud of are the things that nobody sees. Right now, I’m working with the Ministry of Education as part of the executive team. Being at that table and asking the unpopular questions or asking people to consider another point of view and then, seeing folks wrestle and over time, shift how they’re approaching relationships with First Nations. That’s what I’m most proud of… when I can see that I’ve been a part of changing the future for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.

What skills or traits are needed to be good at what you do?

Tousilum, Ron George, talks about the longest distance being between the heart and the mind, and that we need both to really be able to listen. We can listen with our mind, and that’s intellectual, but our heart has the ability to use so much additional information besides what we consciously cognate. I think there is also something about knowing who I am and where I come from. And even though I’m constantly learning and asking myself questions, I know my history. I know my family’s history. I’ve done lots of work to understand my biases and assumptions, and I’m not perfect by any measure. I think self awareness and self reflection are important skills for doing this work. And the skill development is ongoing.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?

My mom would say, when things were going rough, “Yes, you get to be upset. Go and have a cry. And then when you’re done crying, wash your face, brush your teeth, brush your hair and carry on.” In the past year and a half, as I talked to educators and other folks who work in the education system, the feeling is too often one of despair. People not knowing what to do anymore and feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world. “The antidote to despair is action.” I believe that’s from Joan Baez. I saw it somewhere and it’s resonated true for me and connects to that idea from Mom. “Yep, go ahead. You get a moment, and then, figure out what your next step is.”  

About the Distinguished Alumni Awards

The UVic Distinguished Alumni Awards celebrate the remarkable achievements of UVic graduates.

Nominations for the 2024 awards are open now through Oct. 13, 2023.