When Queen’s professor Laura Murray was teaching her ENGL 287: Unsettling Kingston/Katarokwi course, which focused on local and national Indigenous issues, she invited Laurel Claus-Johnson – an Elder from the Bear Clan of the Mohawks – to come to the first class and speak with students.
Then, for the following weeks, Ms. Claus-Johnson kept coming. She was a determined advocate who served as a cultural bridge and loved to share her knowledge of Indigenous issues with the students.
“She was such a gift in that class,” says Professor Murray. “She came because she wanted to learn, and she wanted to teach. She was such a blessing to students. She would listen to students who didn’t know anything, and she would respect them and help them see they needed to learn more. She loved coming to class.”
Many are remembering Ms. Claus-Johnson, who passed away Sept. 30, 2022, as a committed community leader who deeply cared about the environment, women’s rights, and Indigenous rights.
She first came to Kingston in the mid-1980s to study law at Queen’s but never completed her studies.
“She didn’t need a law degree to make an impact,” says Professor Murray.
She continued to stay involved at Queen’s long after her student days. She was a member of the Indigenous Council of Queen’s University, consulting and providing guidance to many students, professors, and administrators.
Taylor Tye, Artsci’21, Ed’23, worked with Ms. Claus-Johnson on a research project while in undergrad and describes Ms. Claus-Johnson as a strong Mohawk woman.
“I’m an English major so I am inspired by language,” says Tye, who is Ojibway and currently a student with the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at Queen’s. “She spoke in stories, and she really drew you in in beautiful ways. I look back at some of the conversations and think ‘I learned so much from Laurel and I didn’t even realize it.’”
Her impact extended far beyond the Queen’s campus. Among her many accomplishments were the community roles she held. She was a founding member of the Katarokwi Native Friendship Centre, a former executive director of Dawn House, and a member of the Katarokwi Grandmothers’ Council, the Prison for Women Collective, and the Limestone District School Board Indigenous Education Advisory Committee.
She was passionate about helping people in prisons ever since she came to Kingston in the mid-1980s, working diligently alongside Canadian Mohawk lawyer and activist Trish Monture, Law’88, LLD’09.
“There were many that died and took their own lives there. I still think there are deep reparations that need to be made there,” Ms. Claus-Johnson said during an interview with The Kingstonist in 2022. “Not only that, but I believe in the spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional well-being of prisoners. There are 10 prisons in the area. Certainly that should be on our minds. Prisoners are people, too.
In 2022, she ran in the Ontario provincial election for Kingston and the Islands as a member of the Consensus Ontario party. During media interviews she said one of her main reasons for running was to help better protect the environment, and help many people society has overlooked – people in prisons and the homeless.
Grandmother Laurel, as she was frequently called, was often seen in her braided hair riding a mobile scooter around campus and the city.
“When I go down the street with my electric scooter, I don’t speak to hardly anybody, other than [if I see someone] sitting on the street begging, I’m stopping. I’ll stop and say, ‘How’s it going?’ I give my voice and value and presence,” Ms. Claus-Johnson said during a 2022 interview. “[Homeless people] carry a lot of personal trauma … I just continue to love them. They’re my favourite people on the street. They know I care, too, for sure. It’s a real thing.”
Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson, MA’01, PhD’07, publicly recognized Ms. Claus-Johnson’s contributions at a city council meeting in October.
“Over the years, Laurel supported and advised the city on many matters, often reminding staff and council that the words we speak carry our intents and should be chosen with care,” the mayor said. “Laurel was tireless in her community work and will live on in the contributions she made and through the family and friends she leaves behind.”
Queen’s Associate Vice-Principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation) Kanonhsyonne Janice Hill, Ed’99, feels Ms. Claus-Johnson’s drive to help others stems from her culture and the Seventh Generation Principle.
“We are honouring the seven generations before us and preparing for the next seven generations,” says Ms. Hill. “It’s our responsibility to leave things as good as we found them, if not better, to ensure a good future for our children and their children. So, I think Laurel’s drive came from her commitment to living that kind of life.”
IN HER OWN WORDS
When Laurel Claus-Johnson ran in the Ontario provincial election, she spoke passionately about the environment and her desire to protect it. From a 2022 interview with The Kingstonist:
“Climate and the environment are my No. 1 issues because [they impact] 100 per cent of the people. Every baby born, every person that lives, dies, is impacted by the environment, by the oxygen, the sun, the wind, the rain … I adopted the Grandmother Oak tree on River Street, for example, which is on a piece of land that’s part of the Cataraqui River known as the Ribbon of Life, which is protected land. There are some of us who are willing to chain ourselves to the tree or the fence to protect that tree and that land. There’s a huge amount of people who are concerned with the [expansion of the tree] canopy, the quality of air, the planting of trees, the cutting down of trees, the misuse of land. So, the environment, to me, is focus No. 1.”