For much of her life, Donna McNeil-Clark didn’t know her origins; the history of her people was nearly erased.
Today, Donna, a proud member of the Tahltan and Nisga’a Nations, is more connected to her roots than ever, thanks in part to her career in the Prince Rupert School District.
“I’m like a born-again First Nations,” Donna laughed.
School used to be a place that aimed to strip Aboriginal people of their culture. Through her teaching, Donna hopes she can do the opposite for her students.
“I’m very passionate about teaching the local language, history and culture,” she said.
Donna was born in Prince Rupert but spent her childhood in Port Edward, being the eldest of four children.
As a young child, Donna and her family lived in the Nelson Brother’s Cannery row houses for First Nations. Here Donna recalls being able to see her father at work while he unloaded fish from boats.
Many of the people working at Nelson Brothers lived in the cannery village, which was divided into sections based on race. Donna said she had a happy childhood in the close-knit community.
“It was a busy little fishing town. All walks of life lived in the neighbourhood and everyone cared about one another,” she said.
“You knew you couldn’t get away with mischief because everybody knew each other. Your mom would find out pretty damn quick,” Donna laughed.
Donna says her parents were great role models for her growing up, being very community-minded people who valued the importance of education.
When she was attending school in Port Edward as a kid, Donna noticed there were never lessons about Aboriginal history or culture within the curriculum. And if there was, the lessons weren’t about any of the First Nations people of the area.
“I’d wondered why native people weren’t represented in our textbooks,” she recalled.
When Donna was a teenager she attended high school in Prince Rupert until she decided to drop out in Grade 11 and move to Tsawwassen.
While she lived in the Lower Mainland, Donna found it extremely difficult to find work, noticing many employers had a negative concept of First Nations people.
“Trying to get a job in the city in the ‘80s … was really hard for native people. As soon as they found out you were native, you knew you weren’t going to get the job. I stopped saying I was,” she said.
The challenge to find a job motivated Donna to go back to school. At the time she was fascinated with the fashion industry, enrolling in Blanche Macdonald Centre’s fashion merchandising program in hopes of becoming a fashion illustrator.
“I wanted to decorate all the storefront windows I used to look at in Vancouver,” she said.
But even after completing the program, finding a job that paid more than minimum wage continued to be a struggle, prompting Donna to return to the North Coast each summer to work in the cannery.
Growing tired of what felt like a never-ending pursuit to find work, Donna decided to return to school.
After completing the electronic technician program at Vancouver Community College, Donna landed a job but felt she wasn’t taken seriously.
“It was a male-dominated area,” she said.
“I ended up just staying in the shop and hated it.”
It frustrated Donna to be the first employee laid off each year and having to depend on employment insurance for numerous months.
But it was in the employment insurance office that she would learn about a program that was being set up to get more First Nations people working in Prince Rupert schools, signing up to become a support worker.
Donna did the practicum portion of the program at Roosevelt Elementary and was hired before graduating, becoming a childcare worker at the school in 1992.
For the two years she stayed in the position, Donna worked closely with two students. Although there were many challenges, there were also noteworthy successes.
Through a combination of computer learning and sign language, Donna was able to help a young girl who had Down syndrome and a hearing impairment to read and speak aloud.
“I was so happy for her,” said Donna, adding the experience was also fulfilling.
“It made me see it doesn’t take much to inspire kids; all you have to do is believe in them and give them encouragement,” she said.
In the ‘90s, industries that had been the community’s livelihood for decades were dwindling. Because a lot of the students at Roosevelt were from families struggling to cope with the changing economy, the provincial government supplied funding to turn it into a community school. A community school program coordinator was needed, with Donna being hired for the year-round job.
Donna excelled at her mandate of forming community partnerships in order to provide programs and services to meet the needs of students and their families.
The Roosevelt gym housed an array of activities, as well as basketball practices for a number of teams.
“We ended up having programs every day after school. The school was open everyday after three until six,” Donna said.
In time another full-time coordinator had to be hired, along with two more in the community for the Nights Alive program.
“It went from me being in a room to a full-service school model,” Donna said.
Through one of the many activities at Roosevelt, Donna would fall for her future husband, Lance Clark.
The two rented separate levels of a home, being acquainted through their children.
“I invited him and his cute son (Adam Moore) up to play with (my son) Justin,” Donna explained.
Knowing Lance was a musician, Donna asked him to perform at a Christmas concert that was being put on at Roosevelt.
“I was impressed with how he conducted himself with the kids and how much the kids liked him. So much so that I started liking him … so I dropped a love note in his guitar case. Then was too scared to go home,” Donna laughed.
The two went on to get married in 1994, with this Boxing Day being their 20th wedding anniversary. In 1997 they welcomed their son Kendall to the family, raising their three boys together.
“There was no borderline there,” Donna said of raising their kids.
Life at home was great for Donna, but her work life became more uncertain in the early-2000s when the provincial government began reducing community school funding. More and more money was cut, reducing staff and programs, and after 16 years at Roosevelt Donna decided to leave and pursue a teaching career.
When the school district began offering a program to ensure there were enough Sm’algyax language teachers in Prince Rupert, Donna decided to take a chance. Many of the people in the program were able to get a bachelor of education in Prince Rupert through the University of British Columbia without having to leave, including Donna.
“To learn a new language at that age was difficult, but what kept me going was that finally, finally the missing part of my life, my own history, I got to study everyday,” she said.
“I started to look for my own history [in our learning materials]. I wanted to know what they knew about the natives at the Stikine. What did they know about the Nisga’a? All the questions I had about my own family, I would look for traces in their adawx.”
For the past four years Donna has taught Sm’algyax at Charles Hays Secondary, with Lax Kw’alaams hereditary chief Alex Campbell (Sm’ooygit Gitxoon) working with her over the years to help develop her skills.
“He’s a great mentor. He never makes me insecure about not being Tsimshian,” Donna said.
The more Donna learned about her ancestors, the more passionate she felt about advocating for the protection of the land they lived off of for thousands of years.
“We have what the rest of the world doesn’t. We have an intact ecosystem that is still working and can be saved. We could live off this land. If we learned the ways of the elders we could exist for a lot longer,” she said.
Donna hopes that by teaching her students what the names of land and territories were prior to colonization, they too will grow to have the same appreciation.
“I think it’s so important to know who you are and how you are connected to this land,” she said.
“These students are our future and will need to fight for it.”
It wasn’t too long ago that schools stripped Aboriginal people of their identities and forbid them from practising their culture, so Donna aims to bring as much meaning into the Sm’algyax course’s set curriculum as she can. Because even if her students never becoming fluent in the language, she hopes to instill something even more important.
“As long as they walk out of the door and are proud to be First Nations … I still feel like I was able to help,” Donna said.