People in Profile

Mary McKenzie

Mary is keeping traditional wisdom alive in the minds of her young students. 

“I’ve been teaching for years now, kindergarten to grade nine, but I started as a bus driver,” Mary said of her time at Anzac School. “The kids I drove grew up and had kids, then those kids grew up and had kids of their own and it’s their children that I teach nowadays.”

Now an Elder in the Willow Lake Metis Nation, Mary was born, raised, and has spent most of her life in Anzac. “My family’s been here for at least 7 generations,” she said, remembering her own childhood “teachings” in a local day school. “My first languages were French and Cree. Both languages were beaten out of me, and English was beaten into me.”

But Mary was emboldened, and by embracing a career in education, took back her past. Where once her Cree heritage was brutally censored, it’s now celebrated, elevated from undeserved obscurity and integrated into the modern curriculum.

I’m teaching math and science, in Cree, at school. I do land-based teachings. I take the students on nature walks where we learn about the trees, flowers and plants. I show them the medicinal elements they can find in nature, how they can take them off the plants, and what to do with the things we forage. If we pick anything we’ll bring it back and cook it up. If it’s berries we’ll eat them. If it’s used for tea, we’ll drink it."

Mary is careful to ensure her students give to nature as much as they take. "I’ll show them how to give back – how to replant what we take away so things can regrow.”

When school’s out, Mary is immersed in her artwork.

“I’ve been making art since I was a child. I learned beadwork from my mother, and still do a lot of that. I paint on almost anything I can get my hands on. Rocks, canvas, hide. I’ve painted murals.

“I carve walking canes. I dig in the ground, find the roots and make a cane out of it. I use natural preservatives, sand and ashes, no lacquers. I mix the ash and sand together and rub it on the cane to help harden and preserve it.”

Mary also enjoys volunteering, when time allows. “I try to do a lot in the community. Volunteer as a judge at Halloween costume contests, things like that. As an elder I’ll do prayers for dinners and feasts, making my own prayers for the occasion.”

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