Interview Date: August 22, 2006
Bio: Edwina Wetzel is the Director of Education, at Conne River First Nation Reservation in Newfoundland. She has dedicated herself to building a reliable and constructive education system for the students of Conne River. Her achievements can be measured by the resurgence of the Mi'kmaq language in the greater community of Conne River as well as in the schools. Edwina’s journey has led her to her position on the Board of Directors of the National Indigenous Literacy Association (NILA). Other accomplishments include receiving an Honorary Membership to the Newfoundland & Labrador Teachers Association in 1995 and her contributions to the 37th Parliament's Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in 2003.
Interviewer: What kind of work, paid or volunteer, were you doing in the 70s and 80s?
Wetzel: 1980’s – I was a principal.
Interviewer: You were principal at what school?
Wetzel: The same school I’m in now, the high school in Conne River.
Interviewer: And were you doing any volunteer work at that time?
Wetzel: Only as it relates to the school. You know, you were here all weekend long with a basketball tournament or traveling with students, that kind of thing.
Interviewer: Right. And what kind of traveling would you do – in the town or…
Wetzel: Wherever there was a basketball or a volleyball or a softball. It could be St. John’s. It could’ve been… it was Gander; it could’ve been anywhere on the island.
Interviewer: Oh, excellent. And what grade is the… it’s the high school, right? What grade is encompassed in that?
Wetzel: Grade seven to twelve.
Interviewer: Seven to twelve, okay. And what prompted you to become involved in education and in your work.
Wetzel: Oh, my goodness, what prompted me? I think back in the early 60’s when you lived in a small rural community, the only role models you had was teachers or nurses or convent. (chuckles) And you had to become one of them. And our principal at the time said, here is the application. You’re going to MUN teacher education (chuckles) and I just happened to like it, so I’m still here!
Interviewer: It definitely worked out for you.
Wetzel: Basically, the way it was. You were in high school and they give you an application to go to MUN and go to education or go to nursing or go to engineering. If you were a boy, you probably went to engineering if you hadn’t dropped out by that time.
Interviewer: What role did your involvement in the school play in your life? What kind of effect did becoming a teacher have in your life.
Wetzel: It just consumed. It just consumed my life. You know, everything was focused on kids and students, you were involved in kids’ lives from morning until the time you went to bed at night. I mean, I’ve been teaching in the old… I call them old days – way back in the late 60’s, early 70’s when you were writing public exams and you usually had two or three grades in a class writing public exams because they were from grade nine up. So you were coming back in the evenings, just to get your math courses finished or get your history courses finished in time for the publics.
Interviewer: How did your work, do you think, improved the lives of the Aboriginal women it affected.
Wetzel: It gave them independence. You know, they have jobs now. They have money now. They have independence now. I mean, independence from not having to ask your husband for money.
Interviewer: Can you think of ways that your efforts encouraged Aboriginal women to improve their own lives, not just what you could do them but what they could do for themselves.
Wetzel: Oh yes, you know, in the 80’s when we became a band controlled school, the first thing we did was offer adult education courses, and our first enrolment was 25 women.
You know. And previous to that, way back in the early 70’s, I remember being here – and, again, these things are just flashing in my mind now – being approached by some women and saying, “We want something for us; the men are getting all the work, and we want something for us.” And I remember starting - with the help of my husband, of course, who was organizer at that time – starting craft training for women.
That was back in 1974 – ’73… ’74 – and then when we took over control in ’86, like I said, one of the first things we offered was adult education, and that was 25 women. And these women are now employed somewhere in the band, either full time part time – you know, six months on and six months off or full time.
Interviewer: Do you think that the education opportunities that you were able to provide helped empower them?
Wetzel: I’m sure it did. I mean, I’m the Director of Education here; one of my former students is the Director of Health - she’s got a Masters in Health Administration; and another ex-student is the General Manager of the band government; there are several women who are managers of other projects, so definitely.
Interviewer: Would you say you stepped outside the traditional role of women in the 70’s and 80’s?
Wetzel: Oh yeah. For sure. I was the first one in my community to go to university. I was the first one in this community to own a car with a driver’s license.
Interviewer: Can you describe one or more of the unconventional things that you did and what motivated you to do it?
Wetzel: I think that going to university, getting a drivers license, leaving home and going to teach in the Northwest Territories was just things that women in my community hadn’t done to that point. Just going to university was a big thing.
Interviewer: How long did you spend in the Northwest Territories?
Wetzel: Oh, just two years.
Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as someone who worked towards the equality of women?
Wetzel: I don’t think I consciously worked… you know, it wasn’t a conscious thing I did … I was determined to do things – this sounds very chauvinistic (chuckles) and on the feminist side, but it was just like I was going to have control over my life. You know, I wasn’t going to ask anybody for money; I wasn’t going to ask anybody permission to do anything, but I was going to go forward and do them – that kind of thing.
Interviewer: Do you think that your actions motivated other women to seek equality?
Wetzel: I think for just the women in my own community. It was the women here in my own community. They say, “If you’re doing it, I can do it”.
Interviewer: Right. Can you remember the first time you became aware of inequality or social injustices surrounding you?
Wetzel: I think … when you grew up in rural Newfoundland way back in the 40’s, early 50’s, you were aware of that because the men were the ones who were the bread winners. Everything centered around them because they were the ones in control… if you control the money, you control, right? (chuckles) You know what I mean? And you’re aware of that from the time you’re a child.
Interviewer: Right. Can you remember when you decided you wanted to help change some of these things?
Wetzel: I don’t think… like I say, it wasn’t a conscious thing – I wanted to change anything – I was just conscious that I was going to change it for me.
Interviewer: Right – and, inadvertently, it kind of affected everyone else.
Interviewer: Can you think of a particular issue or activity you were involved with that stands out in your mind that might have improved the equality in your community – like one issue or one event that really made an impact to move things forward in relation to the equality of women in your community.
Wetzel: No, I don’t… probably going back to university in 1995 to finish up my degree at the age of like 50. Again, it was something in retrospect which was a really good thing to do because, when I started teaching with a six-week teacher training and then when they bumped it up to one year university, I went back and got my university – one year – and then when they said two, I went and got two, and you were always kept current. And then in 1995 I went back and, myself, I think seeing someone go back to school at 50, you know…
Interviewer: Yeah, really kind of triggered something.
Wetzel: Yeah, because there was another lady later on who went to university and graduated. She didn’t start until she was in her 40’s, right? And there are also several women who have been taking university courses. They’re older but they’re taking university courses. But I think just the way it went... they learned you’re never too old to learn
Interviewer: How did your family react to your involvement in the education system?
Wetzel: Oh, there was nobody opposed to change because all my sisters went and did exactly the same thing.
Interviewer: Oh, well, there you go! (chuckles)
Interviewer: So how easily or difficult was it for you to become involved? How hard was the initial choice? You said earlier it was pretty easy – the principal kind of gave you a helping hand. Did you find it hard to get through school and then come back to the community or…
Wetzel: No, I always wanted to come back. I never ever thought differently… when I went teaching, I knew there were jobs here waiting for me and I had no trouble coming back. Coming back to my community or living in my community or being part of my community was no hardship but, you know, I still wanted the power to… if I choose to leave, I wanted to have the resources and the independence if I wanted to. But it was a choice; I wasn’t tied here.
Having and education, having a job meant you weren’t tied here. If you choose to live here, you live here because it was your choice. That freedom to choose.
Interviewer: And what was the hardest obstacle, do you think, that you had to overcome?
Wetzel: I don’t think there was one. (chuckles) I’ve always said this is what I’m going to do, and we did it and everybody else went along. After a certain length of time, you build up a reputation. People know what you stand for and where you’re going, and they understand where you’re going and they go along. I’ve never had any real challenges.
Interviewer: That’s great! What was your greatest victory or what changes do you feel that you helped bring about?
Wetzel: I think when we took back control of the school. It seems that has been the biggest thing – a band controlled school.
Interviewer: What year did you guys do that?
Wetzel: In 1986.
Interviewer: 1986 – wonderful! And what’s your fondest memory of your involvement with the Aboriginal women in your community during that time?
Wetzel: Again, like I said, adult education and craft training programs.
Interviewer: Is that still ongoing now?
Wetzel: The craft training program? Well, this is now a craft shop and they still have women who work in crafts, who earn their living working in crafts, right?
We still have adult education but now we have to go in and get people off the streets to come in because, over the last 20 years, we’ve put over 100 people through our adult basic education program – the majority of whom have been women.
Interviewer: What was it like being Aboriginal woman in the 70’s, and do you think much has changed since then?
Wetzel: See, being an Aboriginal woman in the 70’s, I never experienced any kind of racism. I knew it was there and I just… you know, I was going to do my thing and I went on and did my thing and I was always there to prove I was as good as anybody out there; it didn’t matter who they were. So I can’t say I felt any different than I do now.
Interviewer: And did you feel any difference when it comes to gender – like men and women – did you feel there was anything there?
Wetzel: No. You know, I’ve been really, really lucky. Again, that’s what I said because, in 1987 I was the first woman… a newspaper article in The Telegram had a little short paragraph, and I think they referred to me as the first female CEO with the Superintendents Association of Newfoundland. I was one of the first women there. There were other women there but they were assistant superintendents in charge of programs or something like that, but I was the first director or superintendent, whatever you want to call it. I might’ve only had two little schools, but I was still there and I was still part of the association.
I remember that my unit at that time – 35 or 40 schools – my unit at that time was Central Newfoundland, right? I think it went from Clarenville to Springdale, Baie Verte – somewhere - right? And I worked with all men and I went to meetings with these men; and when they had their end-of-the-year barbecue, whether they had it at somebody’s cabin or at my house or wherever it was, I was the only woman that was there and I never backed down from that just because they were going to have a meeting out some place. I made my presence known; and, as I used to jokingly tell them, you know, you’re fulfilling two of your requirements. You’re getting a minority and you’re a woman at the same time, so you got your quota met.
Interviewer: (chuckles) All in one package.
Wetzel: But I always… worked with these people... I don’t know, must’ve been about 25 or 30 of them because you had the assistant superintendents and so on and so forth, and I was always treated with respect by these men whenever I was in their presence. I would never hear anything. I felt comfortable.
Interviewer: What message or one fact that the women in your community went through in the 70’s and 80’s would you like young people to know about today?
Wetzel: Just for women to know that they can do anything they put their mind to, you know. For example, this is a little small event – but we had a lady who went and trained as the first female – sawmill blade sharpener. (chuckles) She’s the only woman in Newfoundland. Afterwards, our sawmill closed. But that was her designation – the first female sharpener for sawmill blades.
When she came in, she said, “I want to do something different than everyone else. I don’t want to go in the regular trades.”
Wetzel: We have a girl right now – our first girl in this community – is taking a heavy equipment operator course in Badger, right? And we’ve had women who have gone into carpentry
Interviewer: What do you think still needs to be done in regards to Aboriginal women’s issues in your community.
Wetzel: I don’t think it’s just an Aboriginal issue. I say, personally, I see a lot of young girls reverting to the little helpless creature. You know, like many girl you see… even in St. John’s. It’s kind of like a separation again, right? Because I remember about ten years ago taking one of my students to… I don’t know, it was some kind of in-service or something about women in sports and they asked her about discrimination in boys’ stuff. She said, “We don’t have it in our school. Boys and girls play basketball together. We don’t see that.” But now I see a little bit more of that creeping - separation of gender. I see a bit of regression.