Maggie MacDonnell had taught in Botswana, Tanzania and Congo, but had never seen anything like what she experienced in Salluit, Que., when she began teaching there six years ago.
“The memory that continues to haunt me is when I see these Canadian teenagers, their very own classmates of the deceased, literally digging the grave,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t know until I came to Salluit that that was a Canadian reality.”
Drug use and alcoholism rates are high in Salluit. The tiny Inuit community witnessed six suicides in 2015, all involving males between the ages of 18 and 25.
MacDonnell, a native of tiny Afton, N.S, won the $1-million Global Teacher Prize Sunday, probably the world’s most-coveted and high-profile award for teaching excellence. She was awarded the prize during a ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, beating out about 20,000 applicants from around the world.
The prize was established three years ago to recognize one exceptional teacher a year who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, employs innovative classroom practices and encourages others to join the teaching profession.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his congratulations in a video message that was broadcast at the event.
“You have done extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances and have showed enormous heart, will and imagination,” said Trudeau, a former teacher himself.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Governor General David Johnston, and astronaut Chris Hadfield all took to social media to congratulate the teacher.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was on hand to present the prize to MacDonnell. Her name was announced by French astronaut Thomas Pasquet in a video message from the International Space Station.
MacDonnell was among 10 finalists flown to Dubai to attend the ceremony. The nine others hail from Pakistan, the U.K., Jamaica, Spain, Germany, China, Kenya, Australia and Brazil.
Last week, MacDonnell told the Canadian Press she was excited three of her students could make the trip to Dubai with her. “They’re a huge part of the story and the reason I chose to get involved (in the award) was to make sure it could in some way benefit their lives,” she said.
Along with teaching, MacDonnell became the community’s fitness co-ordinator—“I’m also a coach, I’m also a mentor, I’m a bit of a motivator. For some children, I’m also somewhat of a parental figure, and older sibling, and aunt and extra mother,” she told the CBC.
Some 1,860 kilometres north of Montreal, Salluit is home to the second northernmost Inuit indigenous community in Quebec, with a population of just over 1,300, and can only be reached by air.
Her determination to stay in the remote area, where many teachers leave their post midway through the year, made her a standout for the award. Still, she was reluctant to join the contest—until a friend told her it would draw attention to the plight of children in the far north.
MacDonnell created a number of programs for boys and girls, including job mentorship and funds to assist with healthy meals. Her approach focuses on emphasizing “acts of kindness” such as running a community kitchen and attending suicide prevention training.
She said that if she won, she wanted to start an environmental stewardship program for northern youth, focused on kayaking.
“I can’t say it’s going after the root issues—physical activity isn’t the solution to the housing crisis, it isn’t a solution to the food security those kids are facing in the north,” said MacDonnell in an interview last week.
“But it is a tool to building resilience and it’s a really great coping strategy for them to have considering all that they’re dealing with.”
Last year, Palestinian teacher Hanan al-Hroub won for her efforts in encouraging students to renounce violence and embrace dialogue. The inaugural prize went to Nancie Atwell, an English teacher from Maine.
The award is presented by the Varkey Foundation. Its founder, Sunny Varkey, established the for-profit GEMS Education company, which has more than 250 schools around the world.
With files from The Canadian Press