Verna Kirkness’ early education career began in the classrooms of day and residential schools in Manitoba in the 1950s, as both a teacher and principal, and continued to an associate professorship at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s and 1990s. She is one of Canada’s most widely respected and recognized advocates of Aboriginal excellence in education.
In addition to her work in educational institutions, Ms. Kirkness has had a significant impact on education policy. She was a member of the committee that developed that Indian Control of Indian Education policy in the 1970s, which altered the course of Aboriginal education in Canada. She was founder of the Mokakit Indian Education Research Association. Her interest in Aboriginal education has led her to many partnerships with international Aboriginal education groups in New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Yakutia (formerly of the USSR). She has been published widely in academic journals in the areas of youth, language and education, and has spoken at major conferences on these issues.
In 1984 Ms. Kirkness played a key role in the development of Ts’kel, which is a graduate program in Education for First Nations students at UBC. In 1987, she was involved in the establishment of the First Nations House of Learning. She spearheaded and coordinated a major public/private $2 million fundraising campaign to build a First Nations House of Learning longhouse. The longhouse, which opened in 1993, serves as an important focal point for First Nations students at UBC. Ms. Kirkness, who is Cree, holds a Master of Education from the University of Manitoba, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario and and Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University. She was the recipient of the 1990 BC Educator of the Year Award, the 1990 Canadian Educator of the Year Award, and the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canada.
The Kirkness Adult Learning Centre was opened in Winnipeg in 1983, named to honour her as “a distinguished teacher and author on educating of Native Indians.”