She taught elementary school for 10 years, then decided she wanted an adventure. So she headed north to become a special-education consultant in the Baffin region, back before it had been sliced off the Northwest Territories (NWT) to become Nunavut.
And ever since, Fiona Walton has been working indefatigably to further aboriginal secondary education. For this the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) professor has been awarded a 2012 3M National Teaching Fellowship. The prize is bestowed annually by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and the company 3M Canada to honor out-of-the-box thinking and teaching at universities in Canada.
“I like igniting fires, if you want to call it that, and I often talk about the slow burn. It’s not about the flame, you’ve got to have that enduring heart to [fan] the fire,” Walton told Prince Edward Island’s newspaper The Guardian after learning that she was one of the 10 teachers chosen this year.
What Walton noticed back when she arrived in what would become Nunavut was not only a lack of services for special-needs children but also a lack of opportunities for educators to earn higher degrees.
“They wanted a masters, but to leave the north and to leave their families when you’re the major wage earner and you’re supporting an extended family was hard. They wanted a masters (program) which would come north to them,” Walton told The Guardian.
“My research discovered that because Inuit were not getting masters degrees they were not accessing the scale at a higher level. Because when you get a masters degree the teacher salary scale enables you to move up. And so as a result of it, Inuit were being ghettoized on a socio-economic level because of not being able to access,” Walton said. “Not merely that, many people who get masters move on to become principals or superintendents and so on, but that was also cut off in a way.”
Upon arriving at UPEI 1999 she helped create courses that give southern teachers insight into working with aboriginal communities. She also helped establish a part distance-learning masters program, taught in both Inuktitut and English, that enabled 21 Inuit women to earn a masters degree in 2009 and has another 19 in the pipeline, STLHE said in its announcement of the winners.
“Fiona is a visionary, courageous, and determined educator who effects change, makes a difference, and whose tireless efforts promote and create a lasting legacy in aboriginal education,” STLHE wrote in its description of Walton’s work. “Fiona changes minds and hearts as she helps teachers to create safe and inclusive learning environments for all students.”
Walton is no stranger to the award scene. In 2010 PEIU gave her its own Janet Pottie Murray Award, which is given to faculty who have exhibited extraordinary leadership and changed the face of education.
PEIU described Walton as “a generous colleague whose commitment to Inuit and ?Indigenous education has resulted in the development of transformative ?programs within the Faculty of Education and the large expanse of Nunavut,” in its announcement of that award. “She inspires her students and also her colleagues—near and far—by sharing ?her expertise, formally and informally, and helping others to become better ?teachers and educational leaders through their own connections to Canadian? aboriginal communities.”
This Inuktitut-English short documentary, Lighting the Qulliq: The First Master of Education Program in Nunavut, is narrated by Inuit women themselves. They profile the masters program that Walton co-founded and explain its significance in their lives.