One of Canada's oldest residential school survivors, Elsie Basque became not only the first Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia to earn a teaching certificate, but a passionate advocate for the healing power of education.
"She was a lady of determination," Daniel Paul, a Mi'kmaq elder and author of We Were Not the Savages, said. "She fought long and hard for First Nations people."
Ms. Basque, who died at her home in Saulnierville, N.S., on April 11 at the age of 99, was sent to Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in 1930. Her father, Joe Charles, believed she would receive a better education there than at the one-room school house she attended in the small community of Hectanooga, in Digby County, N.S.
Ms. Basque arrived at the residential school ready to begin Grade 8. Two years later, when her father pulled her out of the school, she was still in the same grade.
"I've always regarded these years as time wasted," Ms. Basque said of her experience at the residential school, quoted in an essay by Mr. Paul in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
"Volumes have been written about the school. Its total disastrous effect upon the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet Nations will never be known," she said. "Generations later, the scars remain. It was not an education institution as we define education. Older children, boys and girls, were taken out of the classroom to do chores … milk the cows, clean the barn, plant and harvest. The girls were ordered to launder the clothes, make uniforms, scrub the floors, and so on."
Ms. Basque returned home and went to Sacred Heart Academy in Meteghan. Initially, she found herself far behind her friends in class, but she worked hard and excelled. From there, Ms. Basque went on to teachers college in Truro, N.S., where she won awards for her skill at debating. In 1937, she became the first Mi'kmaq to earn a teaching certificate in the province.
"[My father] told me that without an education you have to work very hard, but if I went to school I would learn to work with my head and not my back," Ms. Basque told The Digby Courier newspaper in 2010.
Born May 12, 1916, in Hectanooga, N.S., Ms. Basque was three years old when her father was hospitalized with tuberculosis and her mother, Margaret, abandoned the family. Life got better after her father's health improved and he returned home to raise the family. While working as a guide to wealthy Americans who travelled to Nova Scotia in search of hunting and fishing adventures, Mr. Basque taught Elsie how to fish, shoot a rifle, build canoes and trap minks and weasels.
After graduating from teacher's college, Ms. Basque applied to the Inverness County school inspector for a teaching job in Mabou Ridge on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. At her first meeting with the inspector, he told her bluntly that she wouldn't be welcomed in the community. "On our short drive to his home in Port Hastings, he advised that it would be best for me to turn around and go home. He was certain that the good people of Mabou Ridge would never accept a Mi'kmaq to teach their children. After much discussion it was agreed that I could at least try," she recounted.
Ms. Basque started teaching the next day, becoming the first aboriginal in the province to teach in a non-native school. The inspector proved to be wrong: the community was welcoming. In 1939, Ms. Basque taught Mi'kmaq children at the newly reopened Indian Day School in Indian Brook, near Shubenacadie, N.S. The one-room school allowed native children to remain in the community instead of being sent to boarding schools. She taught there until 1947.
"She had perseverance. She showed that Mi'kmaq could go into the schools and teach and be recognized," Mr. Paul said. "She became a role model for other Mi'kmaq."
While teaching in Indian Brook, she met Isaac Basque, a hard-working farmer from the community. The couple married and had four children. Their daughter Beverly died as an infant of complications from measles. In the early 1950s, the family moved to Boston in search of work and remained in the United States for the next three decades. Ms. Basque, who loved to cook and sew clothes for her family, returned to teaching when her children got older and worked for the Boston Indian Council. She became deeply involved in anti-racism activities and was an outspoken advocate for the elderly. She wrote a report in the mid-1970s on the challenges facing the elderly American native community. It was sent as a position paper to the United States Senate. In recognition of her work with the native community, the mayor of Boston declared Aug. 5, 1980, Elsie Basque Day.
"She had a really strong spirit and personality," Patti Doyle-Bedwell, associate professor at Dalhousie University's College of Continuing Education, said. "She really believed that education was the path to healing."
When Ms. Doyle-Bedwell was working on her master of laws thesis about compensation for residential school students, Ms. Basque, who loved to tell stories about her life, not only mentored and guided Ms. Doyle-Bedwell, but sent her cards of encouragement and small presents to motivate her to continue learning.
"My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be," her daughter Marty Simon said. "She wanted others to believe in themselves."
A member of the Order of Canada, Ms. Basque also received several honourary degrees. In 2013, she received an honourary doctorate in humanities from Acadia University during a special ceremony at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Ms. Basque, who was an inpatient at the hospital at the time, was lauded as a champion of Mi'kmaq traditions. From her wheelchair, Ms. Basque, who was then 96, was greeted by chiefs and representatives from bands across Nova Scotia, who offered her flowers, eagle feathers and best wishes.
Despite her many honours, her deepest satisfaction came from seeing her former students do well in life. "These are the Mi'kmaq children given the opportunities to be anything they want to be," she said.
One of her fondest memories was of a 1993 reunion of students she had taught in Indian Brook, many of whom had gone on to professional careers.
"They came back to say thank you," Ms. Basque said. "It's the greatest gift a teacher could ask for."
Ms. Basque, who died after a series of strokes and a battle with cancer, leaves her daughter, Marty Simon; step-daughter, Marie Francis; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by husband, Isaac; sons, Will and Bryan; daughter, Beverly; grandson, Bryan; great-grandson, Bryan; and sister, Lucy Power.