Canadian school teacher scoops $1-million award for her work in reducing teenage suicide among Inuit community

Maggie MacDonnell was among the top 10 finalists in a competitive pool sourced from 20,000 nominations and applications from 179 countries.

 

It was the crowning moment for Mac Donnell who for the past six years has been teaching in Salluit, an Inuit village deep in the Canadian Arctic, tirelessly working to change the lives of her students and transforming her community.

Taking to the stage while in tears following the announcement which was announced via a special video message from the International Space Station, she emotionally thanked Shaikh Mohammad and Varkey and lauded the spirit of the UAE in paying attention to such a small community, so far away.

“Thank you from bottom of my heart Shaikh Mohammad and Sunny Varkey for creating this breathtaking global platform for celebrating teachers, who often are very humble in nature.”

She added: “We matter, teachers matter… The greatest gift I will take from this event is the friendships I have made with the spectacular teachers who I share the stage with, and to all those 50 finalists, I have fallen in love with you and am re-energised by your spirit.”

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai who is the patron of the award handed the prize to MacDonnell.

“It was a pleasure to award Canadian Maggie MacDonnell the $1m Global Teacher Prize, for her excellence serving the noblest of professions.

“Recognising teachers’ efforts aims to honour the work of these change makers. Supporting education means advancing knowledge in all fields,” he said on his twitter account.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, congratulated MacDonnell in a video message.

“On behalf of all Canadians, from one teacher to another, congratulations on winning the Global Teacher Prize 2017,” the message began.

“You have done extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances and have showed enormous heart, will and imagination,” said Trudeau, a former teacher.

MacDonnell who was among the top 10 finalists in a competitive pool sourced from 20,000 nominations and applications from 179 countries teaches marginalised and troubled children in an indigenous community in Salluit which has a high rate of suicide.

There were six suicides in 2015, all affecting young males between the ages of 18 and 25 and MacDonnell said she has witnessed over 10 suicides.

“As a teacher, when I come to school the morning after there is an empty desk in that classroom. There is stillness and silence,” she said. “Thank you for bringing global attention to them,” she added.

The village is so remote that it’s accessible only by air with a population of just 1,300.

She was recognized for her work in reducing teenage suicide among the Inuit community as well as creating a life-skills programme specifically for girls in a region where deeply entrenched gender issues still exist. This resulted in a 500% improvement in registration into programs previously dominated by boys.

Teenage pregnancy is common, levels of sexual abuse are high, and gender expectations see young girls burdened with domestic duties.

Teenagers, in the face of deprivation and isolation, frequently turn to drink drugs and self-harm.

A desire to tackle the environmental destruction and massive economic and social inequality in indigenous communities is a big part of what inspired Maggie to teach here.

Maggie MacDonnell grew up in rural Nova Scotia and after completing her Bachelor’s degree, spent five years volunteering and working in Sub Saharan Africa, largely in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention.

After completing her Master’s degree she found her country was beginning to wake up to the decades of abuse that Canadian Indigenous people have lived through, including assaults on the environment and enormous economic and social inequality.

One of the biggest myths about teaching is that the school day ends at 3pm, says Maggie:

“I think as a teacher in a small Arctic community, your day never ends. The school doors may close – but the relationship with your students is continuous as you share the community with them.”

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