By Trish Weatherall
Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper July 21, 2017
As an Elder-in-Residence, Maggie Sedgemore, 73, brings decades of experience to provide academic, emotional, and cultural support to North Island College’s Mount Waddington campus.
When her older sister asked what she did, Sedgemore joked, “I sit in the corner and look wise.”
“Maggie always has great wisdom to share,” said NIC Community Coordinator Caitlin Hartnett. “Not only does Maggie support our students, she also supports our faculty and staff, and is a great addition to every meeting, grounding us with her grace and wisdom.”
Sedgemore began as Elder-in-Residence in Spring 2016 for six hours per week as a support to the Indigenous Education Assistant program. Since then her role has expanded to a variety of programs. In the classes she participates in, she said she gives the aboriginal perspective on their way of life, provides a connection and sense of security for aboriginal students, and guidance and support for all students and faculty (Indigenous or not).
“It’s important for students to have a connection and feel safe. They may be afraid to ask questions, so they can come to me,” she said. “Especially now, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s important to have an elder.”
Part of her role is to lead talking circles where students and staff get to know each other and make connections. She contributes to welcomes, ceremonies, and meeting openings by giving thanks to the Creator and asking students and staff to “Hold each other up. Hold hands to strengthen each other.”
While an academic background is not a requirement of the position, Sedgemore is more than equipped, and a positive example of adult continuing education. She quit school to help support her family three months before her high school graduation, and didn’t return to formal education until she was 43. She now holds a BSc. Nursing degree and an MA of Education under the Psychological Foundation at the University of Victoria.
“I want to let people know they can change. They can go back to school.”
Aside from education, Sedgemore’s wisdom comes from her traditional influences, life experience as an indigenous woman, and world travel.
Born Margaret Scow, she was raised in Alert Bay, in Namgis territory, and until she was seven, Kwak’wala was the language spoken in her home. She was raised by her mother after her father passed away when she was three (he was originally of the Kwicksutaineuk-Tsawataineuk First Nations at Gilford Island and Kingcome), and she now lives in her mother’s homeland Kwakuitl territory in Port Hardy. Her own history includes one year at Alert Bay St. Michael’s School as a day student, and Grade 9 at the residential school in Port Alberni.
In 1961, she married a non-aboriginal, (John Sedgemore, known as ‘Scotty’ for his Scottish heritage), and lost her native status. With her husband, she has lived in Toronto, Indonesia, Fort St. John, Victoria, and Port Hardy, and travelled to Scotland, England, and Greece. It wasn’t until 1985, when the Canadian government amended the Indian Act to reinstate aboriginal women’s status, that she was able to reclaim her heritage.
She shares that heritage and cultural understanding through integrating the Kwak’wala language into classes and school life, and practicing traditional arts like cedar weaving, Chilkat weaving, and making button blankets.
A Registered Clinical Counsellor with the British Columbia Counsellors Association, she has done outreach at Gilford Island, and Kingcome and Rivers Inlets, “My focus has been on residential school survivors and their children.”
She was also an Elder-in-Residence at Fort Rupert Elementary School’s reading program a few years ago, and a youth counsellor for the local school district, developing breakfast and lunch programs at Port Hardy Secondary School, and inviting parents into the school to connect.
“Historically, school isn’t necessarily a safe place. Students, and their parents, who may have experience with residential schools, were more accepting of the school environment when I was there. They felt I helped make it a safe place to be.”
Sedgemore has a maternal presence of compassion, understanding, and strength, and has been told by someone that talking to her is “like taking a warm bath.” Sometimes she helps students deal with personal issues, and she welcomes tears. “Tears are natural and healing. I encourage crying and I help them go through it.”
Combining her counselling and cultural knowledge, she also holds workshops on traditional Kwakwaka’wakw grieving practices and how to prevent and delay dementia.
She has no plans to retire any time soon. “I love being here,” she said of NIC. “Contributing to young people, that’s my job as an elder. It’s a bonus to get paid for it.”