Jump to main content

By Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF staff

If Irene Kelleher could walk through the tall glass doors of the new school that bears her name, into the light-flooded foyer, past the library full of Indigenous children’s literature, seat herself on one of the circular couches upholstered in the colours of the medicine wheel, and gaze up at the waves of blonde wood and roof beams designed to echo the ribs of an upturned canoe—well, you can easily imagine that her eyes would be brimming with tears of joy and her heart swelling with quiet pride.

Totí:ltawtxw, the Halq’eméylem word meaning “house of learning,” is part of the school’s name too.1 During the naming consultation period last spring, the Abbotsford School District received almost 800 submissions, including from many former students.

“As we aim for reconciliation and healing from the atrocities wrought upon the Indigenous people of this country, to name the school in her honour as an SD 34 teacher would be both healing and an acknowledgment of her tireless work to help her people,” one person wrote.

“As a teacher Miss Kelleher practised kindness, respect of all students, a pride in her culture and heritage, and a love of nature and the environment,” another local resident wrote. “She modelled perseverance as she followed her dream to become a teacher despite the racial barriers she faced at the time.”

The first Indigenous person certified to teach in British Columbia, Irene did indeed face many personal and professional obstacles because of racism and the stigma of being a so-called “half-breed,” a derogatory term that she disliked but emphatically used to describe how the dominant settler society perceived her and her family.

Irene’s family story is told in detail by the eminent BC historian Jean Barman in Invisible Generations: Living Between Indigenous and White in the Fraser Valley.2 Irene’s grandfathers came to BC from Ireland and the United States during the gold rush and both married Indigenous women who bore numerous children.

Irene’s father, Cornelius Kelleher, and her mother, Julia Mathilda Wells, both attended the St. Mary’s Mission run by Oblate priests and Sisters of Saint Ann. Neither received much of an education, but she learned sewing and “fancy work,” becoming an accomplished seamstress. Cornie and Mattie, as they were known, settled in Matsqui and had two children: Albert and Irene.

Although her brother quit school before graduating, Irene continued her education thanks to the encouragement of a favourite teacher at Matsqui High. She trained at the Provincial Normal School in Vancouver, graduating with a second-class teaching certificate.

Devoted as she was to her parents, Irene’s fondest wish was to teach in her home community but, as she told Barman, “I could not teach in the district. The secretary was an Englishman, he didn’t want a half-breed teaching his children.”

For decades, Irene was forced to go to places “on the margins,” where communities were grateful for any qualified teacher, regardless of her racial heritage. In 1921, she began her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse in the remote mining community of Usk on the Skeena River, more than 1,200 kilometres from home. Her annual salary was $1,020.

In the fall of 1925, Irene enrolled in the University of BC to get her first-class teaching certificate. As the only “half-breed” student there, she felt isolated yet persevered. Irene worked hard at her professional development. Every summer from 1924 to 1958, she took courses at the Victoria or Vancouver normal schools to improve her teaching practice.

She took courses on teaching English to new Canadians, which proved useful over the next decade when she taught Russian-speaking Doukhobor children in the Kootenays. It was a difficult and sometimes dangerous role. Fearing they would be assimilated into the secular society, the Doukhobors used arson to resist regulations requiring their children to attend public school. Despite the difficulties, Irene continued teaching Doukhobor students until 1939, when her school in Ootischenia was bombed.

Finally, Irene landed a job back home at North Poplar School in Abbotsford. She was paid $1,050—only $30 more than her starting salary almost 20 years earlier! She was later promoted to school principal, and for the next 25 years was a respected education leader in her community. In 1964, Irene retired after 44 years in public education. She died on March 16, 2004, at the age of 102.

Now Irene’s rich legacy lives on in the beautiful school on top of Eagle Mountain. Her story inspires both staff and students, says Indigenous support worker Thea Zosiak. “She never gave up on her dream. This is the same attitude I have,” Thea said. “I’m so grateful to be working here with this team of teachers. We’re all women who are continuing that journey like Irene.”

As the school’s teacher for Indigenous success, Charlotte Tommy appreciates the thoughtful way that Indigenous story and natural elements have been built into the school. “It’s a design marvel,” she said, pointing out how the curved bookshelves and hallways, the soft blues and greens of the walls and flooring evoke water and waves. All the furnishings and carpets feature Indigenous art and design, and all signs throughout the school are in English, Halq’eméylem, and Braille.

Charlotte has noticed that since her students from Sumas First Nation moved to the new school, attendance is much improved. “That just speaks for itself,” she said, adding that “their comfort level here is fabulous.”

Each classroom on the ground floor has floor-to-ceiling windows that can be opened wide to create outdoor learning spaces. A school garden area is fenced off from deer and ready for planting. The glass dividers between classrooms are rarely closed, allowing teachers to collaborate easily. The school also houses the Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Centre and both before- and after-school care programs.

Learning support services and English language learner teacher Amanda Coluccio is extremely happy to be part of the first staff team. “We really get to build something together,” she said. “We’re all bringing our different experiences to create an amazing space to learn, work, and play.”

1 Totí:ltawtxw, the Halq’eméylem word meaning “house of learning,” is pronounced tuh-teelt-OUT. Click here to hear audio from a native speaker.

2 All royalties from Dr. Jean Barman’s book Invisible Generations will go to the two scholarship funds at the University of the Fraser Valley generously endowed by Irene—further evidence of her enduring commitment to Indigenous students.

Read More About:

Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine