Q&A: Gwich’in Elder Sarah Jerome appointed to national historic sites board

This is Jerome's second time on the board.

Gwich'in Elder Sarah Jerome has been appointed to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Jerome)

Sarah Jerome has been appointed as the NWT’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC).

Jerome is a Gwich’in Elder, residential school survivor, has been a long-time educator, and was previously the Languages Commissioner of the NWT.

This is Jerome’s second time being appointed to the HSMBC. She spoke with CKLB on her re-appointment and the changes since then and what the next four years have in store.

What do you hope to achieve in your position on the board this time around?

I found out when I was being interviewed, that I was the only Aboriginal person sitting on the board across Canada. One of the questions that I had for the person telling me about the interview was if there was any First Nation (person) sitting on the interview board, and I was told that there was none. There are 16 board members across Canada. I asked if there was any First Nations (person) sitting on the board. Again, I was told that there was none. So one of the mandates that I was thinking about, one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is to bring that Aboriginal perspective to whatever kind of work that I’m doing.

And as I’m learning about the board, I’d also like to educate about where First Nations are coming from, because we do come from a very proud nation, a very strong, resilient people that raised us on the land, and then we were taken away to residential school ourist dental schools, for a lot of us lost that bonding with our parents. Now we have to start healing and make our people realize that they come from a strong nation, and they need to move forward. They need to move forward in our society and be part of decision making.

As a teacher, Languages Commissioner in the NWT and growing up on the land, how will all of those experiences inform your time on the board? 

Having been raised by our Elders, or even our parents, being taught the language, the traditional knowledge, all this was entrusted to us to carry it forward. In my teaching, I try to incorporate as much of the traditional knowledge as I could, along with the language and culture. In my work as the Languages Commissioner dealing with the loss of the Aboriginal languages, I tried to make people aware that we need to revitalize our language. At one time, I read (someone saying) you did not need the culture to learn the language, or you don’t need to know the language in order to learn about the culture. I really disagreed with that, because it goes hand in hand. In order for children to learn the language, they had to be out on the land, to learn the culture along with the language. These are the kinds of things that I’ve learned over the years. I feel that in this position, I need to bring the Indigenous perspective to the board, and also the government in the work that they’re doing.

I’m surprised to hear that you’re the only Indigenous person on the board. This is your second time, what did you learn from that previous experience? Was it the same situation back in the 80s? 

At that time, I had to start my healing. I hadn’t gotten my voice back, so I was very intimidated when I first joined the board back in the mid-80s. The reason I had to leave that position was I was going back to university. But today, moving forward and healing from my experience of the residential school, and being taken away from my family, I’ve taken back my power to be who I am. I have learned so much about where our people came from, how proud and resilient they were. And because they entrusted that traditional knowledge to me, I move forward. I learn as I go along, and we all need to heal together. That is not only an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem.

How do you think the recognition of historic sites is a way to educate Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians about our history? 

One of the things that I’m hoping is that when these proposals come in is to ask the board members, have you connected with their grassroots people? Have you connected with the Indigenous communities to make sure that they are aware of what is going on.

Are there any specific sites either within Gwich’in territory or the NWT that you’d like to see recognized as a historic site?

Since I’m a new member, and I’m still learning about the board and its mandate, I don’t really have an idea. But I think that as time goes on, I’ll be connecting with the various groups at the community level and I will have a better idea.

That’s pretty much it for myself unless there’s anything else you’d like to add.

I would like as many people out there in the NWT to know that I sit on this board and if they ever have any questions to call me and I will try to answer their questions the best I can.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

About the Author

Francis Tessier-Burns
Francis has been a general news reporter with CKLB since January 2019. Originally from rural Ontario, he first came to the NWT in 2016 as an intern with Up Here magazine and fell in love with the North. In his time with CKLB, he's had the immense pleasure and honour of learning about northern Indigenous cultures. Otherwise, you can find him hanging around the Legislative Assembly. If you have a story or want to chat, reach out to francis@cklbradio.com