‘Beacon of inspiration’: Elder Pauline Shirt, founder of Canada’s first Indigenous-focused school, dies at 80

‘Beacon of inspiration’: Elder Pauline Shirt, founder of Canada’s first Indigenous-focused school, dies at 80

One of Canada’s most beloved Indigenous elders, leaders, and visionaries has died.

Grandmother (Nokomis) Pauline Shirt, Nimikiiquay or Thunder Woman as she was also known, died on May 7. She was 80.

A Plains Cree elder from the Red-Tail Hawk Clan, Shirt was born on July 13, 1943, in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Alberta, but had called Toronto home for many years. The mother of five was a long-time resident of Riverdale’s Bain Co-op.

Predeceased by her mother Louisa, father Felix, siblings Bill, Joseph, Ursula, Mary, Jenny, Lillian, Louise, and Kathy, and son-in-law Eric, Shirt leaves behind her sister Leona and children Deanna, Luana (Scott), Clayton (Linda), Ted (Valentina), and Les (Erin) as well as grandchildren Rose, Levy (Gina), Felesha, Cheyenne, Joseph, Julia, Serafina, Raymond, Anthony, Dakota, Phoenix, and Baby Pauline, and great-grandchildren Avalon, Avery, Shawnee, Averix, Seven, Avaidan, Kobe, and Amira.

“Our mother’s enduring legacy shines brightly within each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which will continues to flow like healthy waters into the future,” her daughter wrote in a statement provided to CP24.com on Thursday evening.

Shirt was a life-long educator and Indigenous rights advocate.

Her activism and community work began more than 40 years ago when she established the Ontario leg of the Native People’s Caravan to Ottawa in 1974 with her late husband, Vern Harper.

Two years later, the couple founded Canada’s first Indigenous-run and focused school because they wanted a culturally safe and appropriate space for their son to learn.

It was initially known as Wandering Spirit Survival School and operated out of their home. In 1983, the Toronto District School Board recognized the alternative school as a Cultural Survival/Native Way program and six years later, it was renamed the First Nations School of Toronto. Since 2018/19, the Kindergarten to Grade 12 program at 16 Phin Ave. has been known as Kâpapâmahchakwêw – Wandering Spirit School.

More recently, Shirt, who spoke and sang in Cree, served as the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Keeper at downtown Toronto’s George Brown College.

In a news release, President Dr. Gervan Fearon said that her impact on and contribution to the school was “profound and will always be cherished.”

“She served as a beacon of support to many, generously sharing her cultural knowledge, spiritual wisdom, and guidance,” he wrote.

“More than just a leader, Grandma Pauline illuminated our path with profound insights and a gentle spirit, leaving an indelible mark on our hearts. Elder Pauline Shirt’s teaching, way of being and knowledge sharing will live on with all of us who she has touched.”

In 2022, Shirt was appointed to the Order of Ontario for her life-long dedication to Indigenous education.

She was also the founder of the first Indigenous holistic practitioner’s clinic, Red Willow, which she opened in 1984, as well as a member of the Three Fires Society and the Buffalo Dance Society.

Further, Shirt mentored and advised several organizations, families, and young people.

In a statement posted on social media, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival remembered her as not just a leader within their team (Shirt served as their cultural advisor) but as a “beacon of inspiration to all who knew her.”

“(Her) spirit of kindness, compassion, and patience will continue to guide us in the days ahead,” they wrote.

“…(Grandmother Pauline) left an indelible mark on our hearts and a legacy of advocating for Indigenous voices, language revitalization, and understanding. May we all honour her memory by treating each other with care, empathy, and kindness, remembering what she taught us.”

Indigenous Harm Reduction Network/Wewena Training and Consulting, which Shirt’s son Les co-founded, called her an “extraordinary person” who “shared her gifts with us and taught many.”

“Words cannot express the deep loss our community is feeling. … Miigwech Nookmis Pauline baa for everything that you’ve done for our communities,” the organization wrote.

Red Sky Performance, which also benefitted from Shirt’s knowledge and support, also expressed its deep sadness at her passing.

“We extend our heartfelt condolences to her family, and Grandmother Pauline, may you sing well on the ancestral other side. We want to say chi miigwetch, thank you, for all that you have given to our community and to our people. We will miss you,” they wrote.

Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA) remembered Shirt as a “trusted friend, advisor, mentor, and elder to all of us.”

“We will always remember her for her generous teachings, supportive and loving family, and her passion for fashion and art. Her memory and legacy will continue to enlighten us and guide our work at IFA,” they said in a statement.

“In honour of Grandma Pauline, we would like to share one of her quotes: ‘We celebrate, we acknowledge spirit and spirit will come alive.’”

Native Earth Performing Arts said Shirt was someone who “truly believed in the power of storytelling, and always strived to uplift and empower Indigenous voices.”

“Often providing openings for projects and rehearsals, or being invited into processes, Pauline was a kind, strong, and incredibly generous leader; her impact on our community is immeasurable,” the company wrote.

“Chi miigwetch, nookomis Pauline. We thank you, we miss you, we honour you.”

Toronto-Danforth MPP Peter Tabuns also paid tribute to Shirt at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

A visitation for Shirt is set for May 10 at Cardinal Funeral Home’s Bathurst Chapel, 366 Bathurst. St., from 2 to 5 p.m. followed by a funeral service the following day at the same location starting at noon. She is set to be buried at 3 p.m. on May 11 at Scarborough’s Pine Hills Cemetery.

A sacred fire for Grandmother Pauline is now set up at Kapapamahchakwew – Wandering Spirit School. Community members are welcome to come and pay their respects daily after 4 p.m. Anyone dropping off supplies, food, snacks, or firewood can stop by any time.  

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