Cree teacher keeps traditions alive stitch by stitch

JOUSSARD, Alta. — Margaret Cardinal has made it her mission to teach young people the skills that her Cree mother and grandmother had passed down to her.

“Teachers like me are pretty rare,” said Cardinal during an interview in her studio at Joussard, Alta.

“My grandmother and mother, they always told me I had to teach this to people because, once I’m gone, it’s really up to that next person to teach someone else so it will continue.”

Cardinal makes items that include teepees, moccasins, garments, dolls and items for prayer.

As well, she takes young women in for what’s known as a rite of passage. She will spend four days and four nights with them and, by the end, the women will have made their own teepees.

“It’s when a young lady has her first moon-time and wants to celebrate that by learning skills,” Cardinal said.

“We do all these skills in hopes that they continue to teach it.”

Cardinal has spent the majority of her life teaching, first through the public school system and then at Northern Lakes College. Today she usually teaches online or privately.

She said there has been a revival in the last decade.

“Before it was a struggle because there just wasn’t enough funding for programs, but now I think lots of schools want more traditional teaching about Indigenous culture. There’s been a real change in that.”

But before Cardinal got into teaching full time, she first tried farming hogs and some grain with her husband, David McConnell.

While Cardinal grew up with some stock, neither of them knew what it was like to have a full-scale operation.

McConnell, who had been a primary school teacher, was adamant he wanted to be a farmer.

“It was a way to get back onto the land,” he said.

“It seemed like it would be a simpler life and we could be more self sufficient.”

It was challenging, both physically and financially, Cardinal said. She would teach part-time to supplement their income, but they eventually had to get out of farming after more than 10 years.

“It was hard, hard work, when you don’t have a supportive family because our parents weren’t farmers, I think it just made it more difficult,” she said.

But leaving the farm meant Cardinal could start teaching full time, and McConnell could also get back to teaching.

“It’s a blessing in disguise. We found Joussard, fell in love with it and we moved,” she said.

The two of them eventually built an off the grid home on their land, complete with solar panels, compostable toilets, a windmill and propane power for heat.

They are essentially living off the land again as they did when farming, only this time it has been manageable.

“I find it’s a very satisfying thing,” McConnell said.

“We’re living in harmony with the elements, and we don’t have to deal with Alberta power or gas companies.

“Besides, we have everything that everyone else has, but we just use it a little more carefully.”

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