By Nikayla Goddard, February 21 2021—
“Systemic discrimination is like COVID. It is like a virus. It hurts people, it kills people, it’s unhealthy. And if that’s the society we want, that’s what we have. We must find a vaccination for systemic discrimination. We must heal this planet. We must heal as people.”
Doreen Spence, better known as Grandmother to many, is a Cree Elder in Residence at the University of Calgary, and was recently appointed to the Order of Canada. Her impressive and heartfelt activism and advocacy work has encompassed her entire life for 83 years, and she still continues to strive towards a vaccination for systemic discrimination. Her work has resulted in her winning many prestigious awards, including the Chief David Crowchild Memorial Award, YWCA Women of Distinction Award, Alberta Human Rights Award, the Indspire Award, Alberta Centennial Medal and a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In response to receiving her appointment to the Order of Canada, Spence said she was excited, and “couldn’t believe it at first.”
“It took a bit of time for the reality to set in because the government is the very reason I feel compelled to do what I do every day. Because we need to heal as a society and as an Indigenous person, especially as an Indigenous woman, you’re kind of the last on the totem pole. To me, it was critical to get as much of the awareness I could, whatever avenue I could use. I was an activist for many many years. I marched onto the UN, to Geneva, did a Sacred Run through Europe. It’s been my whole life.”
When asked which award she was most proud of, Spence responded that receiving an honorary Bachelor of Nursing from Mount Royal University took the cake. She said receiving that honour has helped her solidify the work that she’s done and continues to do.
“I think being recognized for the tireless work and healing and mentoring, I’ve put in countless hours every day […] to be honoured in that way, although I’ve had the Indspire Award, which is a big national thing — they choose the cream of the crop with that one — they’re all just heartwarming. At my age, I just feel that every day is a gift, and to be honoured like this with Indspire, with the Bachelor of Nursing, and with on top of that, the Order of Canada.”
Spence shared many different stories throughout the interview, including one event when she was about seven that inspired her to start advocating for change. She described how she wasn’t allowed to play baseball with the boys in school, and how the teacher told her it was because she was a girl. Spence said she made a point to ask the teacher how she would feel if she was told she couldn’t teach because she was a girl. From there, she made friends with the boys and played on their team, teasing them that every time they didn’t take her they would lose… and sometimes they did.
“That’s how I started, I guess,” she laughed. “Just one battle at a time. It’s not exclusively about Indigenous issues. It’s about all nations, all people, and the systemic discrimination that we face as minorities. I think people are starting to see that.”
Spence’s experience in post-secondary was disheartening in some ways, she said. On her application for her Bachelor of Nursing program, the form asked for her landed date of immigration and date of birth. She put the same date for both, saying “That’s the day I landed.” She got into the program, but the administration asked her what she was trying to do and told her they would make it tough for her.
“That’s been my whole life so far,” was her response.
She was among the first Indigenous women to receive a Practical Nursing Certificate.
During her post-secondary experience, there wasn’t “one word about Indigenous or Indians, she said.
“It was all about the World Wars and stuff like that […] What I did hear was not the real story about Indigenous peoples. Growing up with all these hurdles, it just seemed to make you more determined to change the status quo.”
Spence is now incredibly involved in many different programs, activities and committees at the University of Calgary and around the city and province. Her current role as UCalgary’s Elder in Residence is an honour, she says, and she loves working with what she calls the “Elders in making.” She reflected on how far education has come since her post-secondary experiences.
“Education to me is like our sacred buffalo. I always say you can buy education but you cannot buy wisdom.”
Spence also hosts Connection Circles, now moved online, every second week as co-hosted by the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation Network and the Cumming School of Medicine’s Indigenous Local and Global Health Office. She says that she sits on the human rights committee for the City of Calgary, is a sweat lodge holder and also takes people out on vision quests.
If Spence could give any advice to students, both Indigenous and not, she said she would say, “Always come from your heart.” She also believes strongly in priorities — she asks the Creator what her priorities are for the day, and always carries them out with unconditional love. She also lauds persistence, perseverance and passion as key traits.
One of the stories she shared that has inspired her despite all the mountains she has climbed everyday and the “struggles just as an Indigenous person” was a moment in her childhood, standing on the edge of a river with her grandmother.
“My granny was standing at the river and I was looking at this little rock. She said, ‘You can pick it up!’ so I picked it up, and she said, ‘You can throw it in the river!’ so I threw it in the river. And this little rock made a ripple right from one end of the river to the other side. And I go, ‘Wow, look at that! A tiny little rock makes such a big ripple.’ And she goes, ‘Yes. That could be your legacy’. […] What legacy are you going to leave for your future generation? And that, to me, speaks volumes to the kind of legacy I want to leave for the future generations,” she concluded.