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A pathfinder, knowledge-carrier, and guide for life

[Mary Ann Spencer]
As the elder in residence at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, Mary Ann Spencer helps support students in their Indigenous knowledge and blend it into their programs. (University Communications)

In her native Mohawk tradition, Mary Ann Spencer is a pathfinder – someone who holds the responsibility of creating and opening paths for others. It’s a role that permeates her whole life’s work – as social worker, teacher, activist, and elder in various communities, including Queen’s.

“I am Wolf Clan and one of the wolf's responsibilities in nature is to go through the forest and help animals in need. In my community and in my life, my responsibility is much the same, to help others who are suffering and guide them to a better place, to help them find a path to health and wellness,” says Ms. Spencer, who recently became elder in residence at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, where she works with the Indigenous community on campus, supporting students in their Indigenous knowledge and helping them to blend it into their programs.

As elder in residence, Ms. Spencer takes on a very traditional role.

“Elders are knowledge-carriers who help sustain the community and its people, and guide individuals to stay on a good path with their wisdom and stories,” she says. Elders are held in esteem and deeply respected because of this, and an integral part of an Indigenous community.

Embracing her Indigenous heritage

Looking back at her own life’s path, Ms. Spencer can clearly see how her journey to embrace her Indigenous heritage has led her to this role, which in addition to student support, is about building relationships with all members of the campus community.

“We work with everyone toward harmony – all religions, philosophies, faith groups, domestic and international students,” she says.

Born to a Mohawk mother and a Dutch immigrant father, Ms. Spencer grew up near Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, close to her Mohawk relatives but not quite a part of the community. Her mother, by law, had to give up her Mohawk status when she married her father. Ms. Spencer’s childhood, while happy in her rural home and school in Marysville, Ont., lacked any real focus on her Indigenous heritage.

“I went to grade school and high school off the territory and spoke English through most of my childhood," she says. "None of us learned Mohawk, or if we did, we didn’t speak it much. It was considered a source of shame.”

All of that changed when she turned 21. She married a Mohawk man and became a mother. With the help of her uncles on the territory, she found work at the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), as a janitor. A year later, Bill C31, the amendment to bring the Indian Act into line with gender equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, granted her mother the rights and status as a First Nations woman. Ms. Spencer and her siblings were also granted full rights.

Then, she went back to school. Presented with an opportunity to study at FNTI, she chose the three-year Native Child and Family Social Service Worker Diploma Program.

“This opened up my world," Ms. Spencer says. "I got connected to the elders in the community. I began to understand what it means to be Mohawk.”

From the wisdom of the elders, most notably Ernie Benedict, a strong advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people to control their own educational process, Ms. Spencer learned her history and the impact that colonialism had on Indigenous people. She began to question her life’s meaning and found herself on a path of self-discovery.

University, social work, and a return to FNTI

Ms. Spencer progressed along a steady path to higher education, all the while working at FNTI and later as an outreach worker at Red Cedars Shelter, a holistic healing centre for victims of domestic violence. In 2002, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work, through a joint program at FNTI with Carleton University and later Ryerson.

In 2006, as coordinator for the Restorative Tyendinaga Justice Circle, Ms. Spencer was involved with the process of restorative justice, which incorporated a more traditional understanding of why individuals behave the way they do, and looked at the underlying issues that cause the behaviour. The program has been hugely successful and Ms. Spencer remains conected as a committee member.

After completing her master’s degree at Wilfred Laurier University, Ms. Spencer stayed on at the university as elder at the Aboriginal Student Centre for two years. In 2012, she moved back to the territory, where she became a teacher at FNTI, the place she started working as a cleaner all those years ago.

‘A safe and comfortable refuge’

 In April of this year, Ms. Spencer was named elder in residence at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.

“At Four Directions, we offer students a safe and comfortable refuge where they can visit and talk informally, have something to eat, do their laundry, have a little sleep, if they need it," she says. "I personally get to know everyone who comes in.”

At Queen’s, 360 students self-identify as Indigenous, but Ms. Spencer stresses that the door at Four Directions is open to the entire Queen’s community. Ms. Spencer attends opening ceremonies and traditional evenings such as the Full Moon Ceremony, and welcomes interested students and faculty to participate. When professors invite her into their classes to speak to students, she invites those professors to sit down and talk with her so she can help them understand what her role is, and how they can better relate to Indigenous students.

She admits there are challenges, not only the social challenges that she has witnessed most of her life, but also environmental challenges that she believes we are all responsible for.

“In my tradition, we are here for Mother Earth, and I see that we’ve let her down for the past generations," she says. "We need to do a better job of caring for the Earth.”

When not at Four Directions, Ms Spencer continues to teach at FTNI and spends a lot of time at her home at Tyendinaga, where she lives with her three children and six grandchildren.