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N.W.T. elder to get honorary Doctor of Laws

Sarah Jerome, an elder from Fort McPherson, N.W.T. will receive the degree from the University of Alberta this Sunday.

Sarah Jerome, an elder and educator from Fort McPherson, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws on Sunday from the University of Alberta. (Submitted by the Gwich’in Tribal Council)

Sarah Jerome, a Gwich’in elder and educator, can soon add another line to her long list of accomplishments.

The first official languages commissioner of the Northwest Territories is getting an honorary Doctor of Laws degree this Sunday from the University of Alberta.

When she found out she was getting the honour, Jerome, who is from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., said so many thoughts raced through her mind.

“I thought back to the elders, our leadership, people in our lives, our parents who were instrumental in instilling the language and helping us to retain it over the years,” she said.

“I thought, I am not accepting this degree solely for myself, but for the leadership and the elders of our community.”

Diverse career

Jerome’s diverse career includes periods as a teacher and a principal, a cultural support worker for former residential school students, and an advocate for promoting Indigenous languages and for sustainable land management.

In 2016, she spoke about residential schools at Harvard University. Jerome even did a stint on the silver screen — playing the grandmother in the award-winning film, The Sun at Midnight.

Sarah Jerome, a former N.W.T. languages commissioner, gave a presentation to Canadian students at Harvard University in 2016 on the history of Canada’s residential schools. (submitted by Patrick Tomlinson)

But for Jerome, the drive was never to achieve fame or fortune. Rather, it’s been about protecting the land, her language and her culture for generations to come.

Jerome spent 12 years in residential school. During that time and afterward, she said, the elders kept speaking to her and other children in their language.

“They continued to tell us that we were the keepers of the land the animals the fish the birds, to take care of what was entrusted to us because this was our way of life and that we had to keep it safe for the future generations,” she said.

Jerome said she wants young people of the future to know their language, and basic survival skills, “and I think that’s what kept me going.”

Sarah Jerome, centre, on the set of ‘The Sun at Midnight.’ The film was Jerome’s first foray into the world of acting. (Submitted by Kirsten Carthew)

When she accepts her degree this weekend, Jerome said she will speak about reconciliation and how everyone in Canada can work together toward healing.

“Because it’s not an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem,” she said, “and we all need to work together in order to heal.”

‘Education is so important’

Jerome, who went back to university as an adult and a mother, said she will also urge young people to pursue an education.

As the future leaders of their community, she said, young people should get as much education as they can to prepare for the hard work ahead.

“The work is so overwhelming sometimes because of the addictions in our community and because of the intergenerational effects of the residential school,” she said.

School will benefit them personally, as well, said Jerome.

“Education is so important,” she said. “It will open doors for you to do whatever you want to do in life, and to be happy.”

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