By Pat Steenberg
Among the new members appointed to the Order of Canada last November was long-time Glebe resident, Harvey McCue. An Anishinabe from the Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario, Harvey McCue – Waubageshig – is one of Canada’s leading experts on Indigenous education.
“I still find it all a bit of a marvel,” says Harvey. “It has certainly been an unlikely road I have travelled from Georgina Island to Rideau Hall.”
From his first job after graduation, Harvey has relentlessly pursued one overarching goal: the implementation of an education curriculum, with the associated funding and infrastructure, that serves and speaks directly to the interests, needs and potential of Indigenous youth and their communities.
In 1969, aged 25 and just graduated with his BA in sociology from Trent University, Harvey was asked by Trent’s founding president, Dr. Tom Symons, to create a new Indian Eskimo studies program, making Trent the first Canadian university and the second in North America to establish an academic department dedicated to the study of Indigenous people.
In 1983, after 14 years on the Trent faculty, Harvey moved to James Bay as director of education services for the Cree School Board, the first native-controlled provincial school board in Canada.
During Harvey’s five years as director, the Cree School Board created a credible infrastructure, trained personnel and got its basic curriculum working. Work on orthography standardization resulted in the production of a dictionary, various teacher support materials and a great deal of language awareness on the part of local teachers and curriculum support professionals.
From James Bay, Harvey relocated to Ottawa, as director of policy and research in what was then Indian and Northern Affairs. He subsequently became the federal government’s first First Nations director general of native education.
In the early 1990s, Harvey took up the position of executive director and director of education of the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Education Authority. Together with the Nova Scotia and federal governments, he worked to return exclusive jurisdiction of on-reserve education to First Nations – work that led, ultimately, to the 1999 Mi’kmaq Education Act.
Since retiring in 1995, Harvey has involved himself in a wide range of Aboriginal youth issues with his most recent project being one very close to his heart. In 2019, Harvey was approached by Claire Onabigon, education director for Long Lake 58 First Nation, to develop a K-12 history curriculum for the students in her two schools.
Onabigon’s memories of time spent with her great grandmother, learning about her family’s deep connections to the land and water and people, inspired her to develop the new history curriculum for her Long Lake students, one that would include lessons about their families and their community. “To ensure our kids a brighter future,” she said, “we need them to know who they are and where they come from.”
Onabigon found an enthusiastic collaborator in Waubageshig.
“I nearly hit the ceiling when she asked me to develop this, because it’s something I’ve been advocating for, for many years,” said Harvey. “It is ground breaking, the first curriculum of its kind in the country.
“We have been remiss to trust our curriculum to provincial and federal officials, with bad results. The Long Lake curriculum is only a start. What we need is an Indigenous epistemology, so that our kids can learn in an educational environment that reflects their own history and experience. Moreover, I expect that indigenous epistemology to be given the same weight as those of other cultures.”
I asked Waubageshig for his thoughts as he reflected on the work he had accomplished over the course of his career.
“I would have to say that my work in James Bay was probably the most truly enjoyable. We were building a whole new system of education from ground up and it was incredibly exciting. Probably the work I am proudest of is the development of the Long Lake history curriculum – the first of its kind in Canada. Finally, the work with the greatest long-term impact would, without doubt, be the Indigenous Studies Department at Trent. It became a model for universities across the country, and today it would be hard to find a Canadian university or college without an Indigenous Studies program.”
Again, recalling his own teenage years, what did he think his 15-year-old self would make of the life he’s lived?
“Truthfully, I think he would be most impressed by the fact that I live in a house with central heating, secure roofing and three bathrooms. We lived on an island in Lake Simcoe, in a house whose roof leaked and without indoor plumbing or electricity, and every morning I had to be rowed across to the mainland to go to school. But I have been blessed over my lifetime with many, many people who have supported and believed in me, from my high-school teacher, to Dr. Symons, to, most importantly, my family – my wife Sharon, son Duncan and grandchildren Samantha and Cas. And for these blessings, I am truly grateful.”
Pat Steenberg is a friend of the McCues and a long-time resident of the Glebe.