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Remembering Jo-Ann Episkenew

By Dale Johnson Posted: February 19, 2016 4:00 p.m.

Jo-Ann Episkenew touched the lives of many people, and was an advocate for improving the lives of Indigenous people.
Jo-Ann Episkenew touched the lives of many people, and was an advocate for improving the lives of Indigenous people. Photo courtesy of Eagleclaw Thom

People are paying tribute to Jo-Ann Episkenew, who passed away on February 18 after a brief illness.

Episkenew touched many people’s lives as an educator, author and advocate for improving the lives of Indigenous people.

She was director of the Indigenous People’s Health Research Centre (IPHRC) at the University of Regina. Previously she was with the department of English at the First Nations University of Canada. She was an award-winning author and received a YMCA Regina Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award. She served on many community boards and committees to help improve the quality of life for many people. She is survived by her husband, Clayton, and their blended family of 13 children and more than 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Dr. Episkenew taught thousands of students during her career, and was a distinguished researcher as well as a strong advocate for Indigenous health and education. She loved reading, the outdoors and spending time with her family. Those close to her admire her humour, determination and unrelenting humility despite all of her accomplishments. A highly regarded member of the Indigenous community, she will be missed by many on our campus and beyond,” says University of Regina President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Vianne Timmons.

People are remembering the impact she had on their lives.

Cassandra Wajuntah, Associate Director of IPHRC, says “For those of us who loved her, she is like the sun – nourishing everything around her. We were all just lucky enough to be planets in her orbit. Now, what do you do when the sun goes out? We will attempt to do just as she taught us, and walk in her footsteps ‘in a good way’ as she would so often say. She is single-handedly responsible for producing dozens of Indigenous faculty members and graduate students. She has supported me all the way through my undergrad to my PhD, from being an 18-year-old to a 29-year-old mother. We have faculty members on campus who specifically stay here because of the support Jo-Ann offers them.”

Wendy Whitebear, a Research Coordinator at IPHRC, says “The day I found out I was accepted for my position was one of the biggest highlights of my life. Jo-Ann was passionate about the work that she was doing and I knew that I would be in a work environment that was for the betterment of our people. It wasn't long after that I realized I had become part of a team that was not only passionate about the work that they were doing but I also become part of a family that was passionate about each others’ work. This has been an amazing experience that has shaped not only my personal growth but my vision for our people.”

Research Associate Dustin Brass recalls some of Jo-Ann’s favourite comments: "If you have a voice and people listen, you better say good things...and speak for the people who can't, who don't have the ear of the powers that be" and "IPHRC wants one thing, world domination...but in a good way!"

Dr. Julian Robbins, IPHRC Research Affiliate and former post-doc fellow at IPHRC, says “Travelling from Ontario for a post-doctoral fellowship at IPHRC, Jo-Ann made me feel like a part of the family. A tremendous loss. She leaves a remarkable legacy.”

IPHRC Research Assistant Ben Ironstand says she was a real inspiration. “Even though she was always kind and humble, I never heard her speak of herself, at the same time her being demanded respect and honour. She really carried herself with a subtle and effortless regality. Even though her prestige was intimidating at first, as soon as you get to know her kindness would squash all anxieties.”

Another IPHRC Research Assistant, Shinoah Young, says she always looked to Jo-Ann for support and encouragement. "Her legacy as an Indigenous researcher and leader has inspired me to strive for more as a Cree journalist. Years ago, Jo-Ann expressed how important it is to carry on our People's message through the Gift of Storytelling. I am truly honoured and blessed to have known her. I am forever grateful for the time Jo-Ann spent with us here on Turtle Island, where she touched so many hearts."

Erin Goodpipe says “Whether it was speaking to ministers, government officials, or an everyday person, all people were equal in her eyes. It was in her that I truly felt that everyone was valuable because of their unique stories. If I could remember her by anything, it was her dedication to love fiercely those around her and inspire hearts to seek their passions in life no matter what the obstacles. Although she will be missed dearly, the breadth of her love will live on forever in the legacy she has left in people.”

Larissa Wahpooseyan says “Jo-Ann always encouraged me to be my best. She wasn't just the Director of IPHRC, she was our leader and the glue that held us together in the office. She believed in us, and wanted nothing but to see us succeed. I'm so grateful I was able to spend the time I did with such an inspiring woman. IPHRC will always be considered family because of Jo-Ann.”

“The day Jo-Ann passed away, our entire staff was in the office first thing in the morning. We are hosting a gathering this weekend that Jo-Ann worked very hard on and it's a tribute to her that the team she created had no second thoughts about moving forward with it, despite the tremendous grief we all feel. We spent the day sharing tears, stories and working as a team. It was very therapeutic,” says Cassandra Wajuntah.

“The loss of Jo-Ann, for all of us who worked with her, is like losing seven people at once. A mother, friend, mentor, leader, role model, teacher and though she may not have realized it, a knowledge holder in our community,” she says.

Because Jo-Ann Episkenew was an advocate for higher education, the University of Regina is establishing a student award in her name to honour the legacy she has left by breaking down financial barriers for future learners. You can donate to the award in memory of Jo-Ann Episkenew by contacting 306-585-5432 or online at http://www.uregina.ca/external/donor-relations/