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Northern education pioneer dies
M.S. Naidoo leaves behind family, legacy

Erin Steele
Northern News Services
Published Friday, January 17, 2014

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE
The late M.S. Naidoo wore a coat of many colours - a strong-standing figure of Northern education, a "Santa Claus" to his six grandchildren, a humble man and one of high expectation and principle to which he himself adhered.

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Long-time Yellowknifer M.S. Naidoo died on Jan. 10, leaving a legacy that surprised even his own daughter. - photo courtesy of Nalini Naidoo

Leaving behind his wife of more than 50 years and two married children, the South African native who spent the last 40 years in Yellowknife also leaves behind a marked impact on the territory's education system.

Working as an educational consultant for the past 20 years, Naidoo previously worked for the GNWT Department of Education, was the superintendent of the Catholic school board and an educator spanning all the way back to his time in South Africa.

Naidoo died as the result of a series of health issues on Jan. 10 at Stanton Territorial Hospital at the age of 76.

During his last days, his daughter Nalini Naidoo, watched "in awe" as a procession of people came to the hospital to pay their respects.

"What I noticed in his last two weeks was that the people who had interacted with him over those 40 years - they all came. And they all treated him with that same respect and admiration, even though what you saw was a man who was quite ill, but that's not what they saw," she said.

"I had no idea what his reach was. I always saw him as my dad but he was many, many more things to so many more people and we just had no idea how he impacted people in the North because he was very quiet about it. Very humble about it," said Nalini.

She said countless people have told her M.S. was like a father to them.

"He never belonged to just the family. He belonged to all these people he interacted with along the way."

One of those people is Rita Mueller, now the assistant deputy minister with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment. She met M.S. 16 years ago when he was hired to be her professional mentor during her first year as principal at Chief Jimmy Bruneau School in Behchoko. His words still ring in her head, she said.

"Even when I have self-doubt or regrets or I'm wondering about 'what ifs' or what I should be doing next, this man that I'm with right now, in his presence, he really believes that I can make a difference," she said

"He really believes that I can contribute and that I not only have the responsibility to do so, but it's an expectation. Remarkable. Remarkable person."

The notion that every decision - from the classroom to the boardroom - must be made with the best interest of the child or children in mind is instilled in both herself and the territory's education system because of M.S., Mueller added.

"The premise, or foundation, from which he worked was reminding everybody and anybody that the reason we were teachers or principals or support staff or educators was to serve the children," she said.

M.S. also advocated for a Northern school system that reflected aboriginal people well before it became a hot-topic nationally, said Mueller.

"M.S. was really instrumental in saying, 'look at the population of the people we serve.' We're in the North and we have to look at the first people of the North for their guidance, for their help, for their suggestions in ensuring that our education system is grounded in the culture and in the language and in the values of the people."

Mueller says she is among many who considered M.S. family.

"We all felt like we were his children. That's how much he cared about us. That's how much he expected of us," she said.

Nalini can relate to those high expectations.

"I'm hard-wired to be like him. I kind of fought against it 'cause he's a tough guy. He has high expectations, and I ended up taking those characteristics," she said.

"He had very high expectations of academic achievement, of providing service to community, of showing up, being punctual, working with people, helping people when they needed to be helped. He had an order that life was supposed to happen in and expected us to follow that order," she said.

Since her father's death, Nalini has been treated to many stories about her father, illustrating the diverse being he was.

"What I'm hearing from others is how he talked about his grandchildren. He had two parts of his life. He had the educator and the strong, silent, giant of a man that he was. But with his grandchildren, he turned into a Santa Claus. He turned into the man who had no rules anymore. The man who handed out chocolate with dinner," she said.

An M.S. Naidoo memorial education trust fund has been set up to help carry out his work.

Either way, his impact will live on through those he taught and mentored, said Mueller.

"I can tell you that many of us - teachers, principals, superintendents - we've all been impacted by M.S.' teachings and lessons of the work that we got to do with him and thank goodness because I think that his voice in our heads is the one that we need to keep," she said.

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