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Top teacher fights for Canada’s indigenous people

As a little girl growing up in rural Nova Scotia in Canada, Maggie MacDonnell was worried by locals gossiping about the Mi’kmaq indigenous people who lived on a nearby reserve. They said the Mi’kmaq were trapping on her family’s land.

She recalls: “I went to my dad, a huge man, six foot something and in the woods a lot, and said, ‘Dad you’ve got to watch out, the Mi’kmaq are hunting on our land.’

“He looked at me and responded, not in a chastising way, ‘This is their land and we always have to remember that. They can hunt and fish and trap anywhere they want. We are guests on their land.'”

This year Maggie MacDonnell was named as winner of the Global Teacher Prize – and she links this accolade with these attitudes in her early years.

“I was lucky to have that influence at an early age,” she explains.

“Because maybe other kids didn’t go home and have that conversation with their parents, maybe they had a more prejudiced conversation.”Meeting presidents

Ms MacDonnell’s understanding of the injustices meted out to Canada’s indigenous people helped her work with students at Ikusik School in the 1,400-strong Inuit village of Salluit in northern Quebec on the Arctic circle.

It’s an isolated place, accessible only by air, where young people have few job opportunities and where there have been problems with high levels of drink and drug abuse and shocking levels of suicide among teenagers.

At the award ceremony she spoke movingly of the experience of teaching in a school after a funeral of one of the students.Her success was also remarkable because she had not even heard of the teaching prize, run by the Varkey Foundation, until she was nominated for it.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the Varkey Foundation, said she won the prize because of her “superhuman” tenacity in wanting to improve the chances of her students in Salluit.

“There are no roads to get there, the climate is tough and these communities are living with the legacy of generations of inequality.

“Due to the harsh conditions, where temperatures can reach -25C in winter, there are very high rates of teacher turnover, which is a significant barrier to education in the Arctic,” said Mr Varkey.

“Many teachers leave their post after six months and many apply for stress leave, but Maggie has stayed on for six years, painstakingly building bonds with her students and instilling them with hope,” he said.

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