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Lives Lived: Munsamy Shunnumugam (M.S.) Naidoo, 76

Munsamy Shunnumugam (M.S.) Naidoo

Educator, mentor, innovative leader, grandfather. Born on June 22, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; died on Jan. 10, 2014, in Yellowknife, of complications from pulmonary fibrosis and myelodysplastic syndrome, aged 76.

Munsamy Shunnumugam Naidoo was a South African-born Indian of Hindu faith who became a pioneer of northern and aboriginal education in Canada. M.S., as he was known, transcended ethnic and cultural boundaries with a lifelong commitment to family, community and education.

As the eldest son of seven children, he went to work at a young age to help support his family under the oppressive rules of the apartheid regime. In 1958, with the help of a supportive uncle, he completed a teaching diploma, one of the few career options available at the time to Indian students. In 1959, he met Kay, a nurse, and they married four years later.

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In 1970, they immigrated to Canada, arriving in the farming community McLennan, Alta., with a couple of suitcases, a small amount of cash, and the determination to forge a better life. While Kay worked as a nurse at a local hospital, M.S. took a job as a teacher in nearby Donnelly, and also earned a B.A. in education from the University of Alberta.

In 1973, they saw an advertisement for a teaching job in Yellowknife and headed north. They thought they might stay for five years, but ended up falling in love with the Northwest Territories. There they raised son Mahendra and daughter Nalini, impressing on them early the value of education, achievement and hard work. M.S. once told Nalini she should not even consider bringing home a potential boyfriend before earning a designation after her name.

M.S. began his northern career teaching high school math and soon took on educational leadership roles, first as superintendent of Yellowknife's separate school district and later with the NWT Department of Education. Given his experiences under apartheid, M.S. especially relished improving education for aboriginal students.

He created the NWT's regional education councils, which incorporate aboriginal culture and traditions, and extended grade levels in remote communities so students could attend high school at home, with the support of their family, rather than having to go to Yellowknife. He also established the NWT high school diploma, ensuring it was accredited for acceptance by colleges and universities across Canada (previously, northern students had received Alberta-accredited diplomas).

M.S. was a relentless advocate for language- and culture-based education and helped establish the NWT's Teacher Education Program, supporting aboriginal people, through mentorship, to become teachers at northern schools and serve as role models for native students.

Although they lived in Yellowknife, M.S. and Kay spent a significant amount of time in Edmonton, where their son and his family lived. M.S. established deep roots in Edmonton as one of the founders of the Lotus Club, a community association for South African Indian immigrants to Northern Alberta.

A tactful, humble gentleman, M.S. was constantly planning, organizing and implementing ideas. Working with others gave him joy: "A person is a person because of another person," he would say. His personal and professional mentorship was invaluable to educators, students and political leaders. New immigrants were befriended and welcomed to his home for meals and conversation.

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Despite failing health in later years, M.S. valiantly stayed in touch with family and friends. He and Kay spent summers travelling across Western Canada in an RV, often with some of their six grandchildren. Memorial services for M.S. were held in Yellowknife, Edmonton and South Africa, drawing people of all ages, cultures and creeds whose lives were influenced by his remarkable ideas and personal grace.

Laila Adam is family friend and one of M.S.'s many "adopted" nieces.

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