Marie Cooper: a life of teaching and learning

- Melanie Groves

Marie Cooper in 2010.

When Marie Cooper (SWETALIYE) received her Honorary Doctor of Education degree from the University of Victoria in 2010, it was a moment she had been steering toward her entire life. A teacher, counsellor, Elder, advocate and innovator, Dr. Cooper’s efforts to promote and defend Indigenous education, language and culture led to the inclusive transformation of educational policies and practices for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Marie’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering the barriers she faced in an era when Canadian laws and policies were designed to assimilate and destroy Indigenous cultures.

At the age of five in 1939, Marie was separated from her large family in Tsartlip (W̱JOȽEȽP) on the Saanich Peninsula to briefly attend the Coqualeetza Residential School in Chilliwack. She and her brother Martin then attended the Tsartlip Day School, operated by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart through the Department of Indian Education. She worked hard at her studies and excelled in sports, including basketball and softball.

At a time of systemic racism against Indigenous people, Marie also developed a keen awareness that opportunities for Indigenous youth were few “and that some people were getting left behind in a world that was really changing,” says her long-time companion Fran Ertle. Finding her activist spirit at the Tsartlip one-room school house, Marie led a group of fellow students in refusing to sing the Canadian anthem.

With the strong support of her parents, community leaders in their own right, Marie went on to North Saanich High School in the first year that Indigenous students were permitted to attend a public high school. As a result of her athletic ability and passion for learning, she fit in well and became the only Tsartlip person of her generation to graduate from high school, in 1952.

Though Marie had set her sights on becoming a teacher, under the Indian Act Status Indians were not permitted to attend university in Canada. Unwilling to trade in her cultural identity, Marie found an ingenious way to circumvent the Canadian system by attending Immaculate Heart College, a women’s liberal arts college in Hollywood, California. It was run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, the Catholic order with whom she’d studied at Tsartlip Day School. “Marie would always find a way,” says Fran.

Finding her way

Leaving her quiet Tsartlip community, Marie joined the convent in California—where broader struggles for peace, women’s rights and social justice were taking hold—as a way to secure her education. Signing on for the “20-year degree program,” she taught grades 5 to 8 during the week while taking classes on Saturday and at summer school, majoring in psychology.

At college she also met her lifelong companion Fran. “Marie never believed she wasn’t good enough,” Fran recalls. “People could see that she took opportunities not for herself or her ego but to help her people, and to combat that loss of culture. She did it for the generations to come.”

In 1969, after receiving her BA and beginning a Master’s program at Immaculate Heart College, Marie was called home by her community to coordinate the first Native Studies program in the province at Camosun College. She returned to Victoria to lead curriculum development and teach in the fledgling program, living with a group of fellow teachers and students. The same year she helped to form the Saanich Indian School Board, responding to the parents’ desire to keep the Tsartlip Day School open. “The curriculum had been coming from the Department of Indian Affairs, and there wasn’t any say over it,” says Marie’s niece and retired teacher/principal Sheilia Austin. “The parents wanted to have a local, self-controlled school that was relevant for Indigenous students. Marie was instrumental in that shift.”

In a quest to gain more administrative skills, Marie returned to Los Angeles in 1972, becoming the director of education at one of the biggest friendship centres in the country, the LA Indian Friendship Centre. She introduced an educational upgrading program, set up child care services for single working mothers and mastered the arts of proposal writing and budgeting.

Transforming the curriculum

Back in Victoria by 1975, Marie moved into a busy 20-year career as an educational administrator, leading the transformation of Indigenous education at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. “She could see what needed to be done and would always say, ‘How come we’re not doing that’? And then she would make it happen,” says Fran.

Believing that students needed to be supported holistically in order to grow and succeed, Marie initiated the hiring of Indigenous staff, worked to incorporate cultural content into the mainstream curriculum, and started a full-day First Nations kindergarten, which has since been expanded to multiple schools across the region. Instrumental in introducing Indigenous language courses into the curriculum, she initiated the SENĆOŦEN program at Tsartlip School (now ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School) and began recording and using Elders’ stories in classes.

Kendra Underwood, director of Saanich Adult Education Centre, remembers that Marie would grasp both hands of the person with whom she was talking. “She reminded us to come from a holistic place, from our heart, soul and spirit,” she says. “She was so inspiring and guided the way we operate as Aboriginal educators and how we work with our post-secondary partners. I can hear her words in our partnership agreements and as they’re echoed by my colleagues and me.”

Marie became the administrator of the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board from 1975 to 1980 and went on to develop a First Nations Education program (now Aboriginal Nations Education Division) in the Victoria School District (SD61) followed by the Saanich Native Studies Program with the Saanich school district. She was also an honoured member of the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board Advisory Committee.

“Marie had a huge impact. She was so strong and clear about the need to include Indigenous perspectives in all areas of the school system, and to appreciate Indigenous ways of knowing and learning,” says Janet Poth, retired educator, researcher, principal and editor of Salt Water People. “She would say, ‘it’s not just about the dances and food.’ As educators she pushed us to go deeper and seek out the ideas of Elders and the community.”

As Marie grew into her own role as an Elder in her community, she continued to advocate for Indigenous students and provide wise counsel for educators, post-secondary institutions and especially the young people who came knocking at her door for advice and who were always welcome.

“She brought her voice to the table, doing that important work so students would have success and graduate,” says Marie’s great-niece Melissa Austin, district vice-principal of Indigenous education in School District 63 (Saanich). “If you have culture and language and culturally relevant opportunities within the schools those students are going to have more success transitioning to post-secondary and to the workforce, and she knew that.”

“The key thing for Marie was always to come from a place of strength, to come to work with a good heart and a good mind, build relationships and be open to the possibilities for the future,” says Scott Stinson, superintendent with School District 62 (Sooke). “In her gentle but forceful way Marie challenged me to think differently, challenged my assumptions and educational processes themselves, to make sure Indigenous students were supported and all students felt like they belonged.”

Working together

At UVic, Marie was an early member of UVic Elders’ Voices—a group of Elders who offer guidance and direction to UVic students, staff and faculty—and the Indigenous education advisory board in the Faculty of Education. “It disturbed her that the university was on a hill and the communities were in the lowlands,” says Fran. “She felt there had to be more real involvement, and connection, more respect for and being part of the communities.” Onowa McIvor, associate professor of Indigenous education, credits Marie with the vision that led to UVic signing its first community partnership agreement with the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board. The groundbreaking agreement sets out protocols for how the university and school board will work together, with respect.

Marie gave countless guest lectures and provided advice about new programs, strategic plans, conference planning, protocols and partnerships to faculty who sought out her mentorship from every corner of the university. She also cherished her time with students. “She loved being an educator and she educated through love,” says McIvor. She tells the story of how classes of mostly non-Indigenous summer education students on field trip days to the Tsartlip community were often moved to tears by Marie’s gentle spirit and generosity. “She was living, breathing history and they were forever changed by their moment with her,” she says. “That was the power of Marie.”

Through her fierce advocacy for a better future for her people, Dr. Marie Cooper blazed a trail toward self-determination for Indigenous education in the region while building bridges toward reconciliation and understanding. Her passions for learning and teaching will carry on in the generations of Indigenous educators, students and allies who are finding their voices, sharing their gifts and building relationships within the university community and beyond. 

Elders Engagement Fund

The UVic Elders Engagement Fund now carries a new name, ITOTELNEW̱TEL ȽTE: LEARNING FROM ONE ANOTHER, in honour of Dr. Marie Cooper. The name was given to UVic by the Austin/Cooper family.

The fund carries on the work [Marie] was doing at UVic, by bringing knowledge keepers and Elders into classrooms not only so that courses can be more culturally relevant for Indigenous students but so that all students have the opportunity to learn about Indigenous history and culture. She was passionate about supporting all students in post-secondary. This will go a long way to carrying on her legacy so that we can build capacity and understanding, and really engage in reconciliation and move forward.
—Great-niece Melissa Austin

The Elders Engagement Fund supports events and activities such as faculty seminars, classroom visits, Elder honorariums and meetings with community groups or local First Nations communities.

Learn more or donate to the fund.


In this story

Keywords: reconciliation, Indigenous, racism, languages and linguistics, in memoriam

People: Marie Cooper

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