Live and learn
Teacher reflects on 31 years of life in the North

Tara Kearsey
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 29/00) - Dave Matthews has not only shared wisdom during his 31-year teaching career in the North, he has learned many valuable lessons as well.

After reading a news article stating "Come to Canada - the land of opportunity" in 1967, Matthews decided fate had beckoned him.

He packed his belongings and left his home in Wales to embark on a journey that led to the beauty and wonder of the Canadian Arctic.

Matthews' first stop in Canada was in Bowsden, Man., where he met his wife, Mona.

The couple married in 1969, and moved North.

"Being young and adventurous, we just thought that it would be a great thing to do," Matthews said. "The North, in those days, was really a frontier kind of place."

Matthews' landed his first Northern teaching job in Lac la Martre, now known as Wha Ti. He and his wife were the only teachers in the community at that time.

"It was a great place, Lac la Martre. There were wonderful people there and it was a town that really convinced us to stay up North," he said.

After a couple of years, Matthews left to study cross-cultural programs at the University of Manitoba. But it wasn't long before he returned to the Arctic -- this time to Fort Smith.

Another year passed and Matthews accepted a vice-principal's position at Chief Jimmy Bruneau school in Rae-Edzo and became principal shortly after.

Matthews worked with the Dogrib people very closely during his first few years in the North, and truly began to understand the essence of their culture.

"The longer you stay (in the North) you realize there is so much more to learn.

"The Dogrib people have much to pass on, especially the elders. People who are experienced on the land have a tremendous amount of knowledge.

"You're always learning and, in fact, you soon begin to learn that there is more to learn than to give ... we become students up here," said Matthews.

He realized the Dogrib had a very intimate connection with the land around them, and that connection remains as strong today as it was in the past.

He recalls one Dogrib elder in particular who accompanied him on many hunting trips.

That elder was Joe Susie MacKenzie, a teacher at Chief Jimmy Bruneau school who taught him one of the most valuable lessons of life -- being patient.

"The Dogrib are such a patient people. They will wait and if there is an obstacle in their path. They wait until they figure out how to deal with the situation rather than to get frustrated with it," said Matthews.

Matthews, on the other hand, would often worry about the time when he would go hunting with MacKenzie. He was always concerned about getting back to work, but the wise elder would always calm his worries.

"(MacKenzie) really would instill this whole idea that you've got to be cautious, you've got to take your time and you're there to enjoy what the outdoors can offer."

In 1977, Matthews left his teaching job at Chief Jimmy Bruneau and moved to Yellowknife with his family.

He began working as an English teacher at Sir John Franklin high school, and later a guidance counsellor. He spent 17 years in Yellowknife and during that time he enrolled in flight school.

Matthews had learned the basics of flying in Manitoba, but after meeting so many pilots in the North, he was encouraged to go for a pilot's licence.

In 1993, Matthews and his family headed back to Rae where he first worked as a school board consultant. In 1998, he became the principal of Elizabeth MacKenzie elementary school.

The end of this school year will bring another change for Matthews, who will retire in June.

But he's not going anywhere -- the North is his home.

"I don't see this place as anything but home. I think living in the North has given me a greater appreciation for the strength that people have up here.

"In life you tend to take things for granted, but up North ... you realize that nothing can be taken for granted. The North isn't a forgiving place."

After his retirement, Matthews and his wife are going to travel across the North, enjoying the peaceful tranquillity of the Barren Lands and fishing on the vast Northern lakes.

"I'm looking forward, quite honestly, to taking a break and to be able to simply choose what I do and when I do it," said Matthews.

Despite retiring, he said education will always be a part of his life.

"I'll always be around here and I'm sure that I'll be involved in many ways with different aspects of education."

Matthews now reflects upon his life, the accomplishments he has made, the lessons he has learned, and realizes that Canada truly is the land of opportunity.

"In Canada, and particularly in the North, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for young people to experience a whole range of things that they wouldn't be able to do in other places.

"Living here has presented opportunities that perhaps I wouldn't have had in any other country in the world. I owe the North a great deal," said Matthews.