Rita Jonah McLeod’s vocation as an educator began at the lowest rung of the ladder. In the beginning, her feet weren’t even on that proverbial ladder – she was cleaning it.
One can imagine the scene: Rita is mopping the hallway floor at the school in Waskaganish when the principal calls her into his office. “Rita, we need you. A teacher just fled the community. Please say yes.”
“I started substituting for Grade 3 French – so I had two jobs,” says Rita. “They were a tough group.”
Rita is at her cookhouse near the Rupert River plucking and roasting duck meat for her husband Alan and I on a warm spring afternoon. She was set to retire officially in a few weeks, but as the pandemic has ended the semester, she’s retiring early.
Rita entered a teacher-training program in Waskaganish in 1989. As a backup, she also applied to be a police officer. In 1991, she attended university in Chicoutimi for a year and started teaching full-time during the 1992-93 school year in Grades 1 and 2 in the Cree literacy program. In the mid-1990s, she taught Grades 1 to 6.
In 2009, Rita moved to the James Bay Eeyou School in Chisasibi and worked as vice principal and eventually the interim principal for a year. “Alan and I were happy there. The secondary students were happy to see a Cree principal. I used to receive notes with complaints about teachers and the way students were treated. Students would come into my office – they would call me grandma,” says Rita, chuckling at the memory.
Rita Frances Jonah was born at home to Stewart and Clara Jonah in Waskaganish in late April 1960. “There were lots of geese flying,” she says. At two years of age, she was hospitalized for tuberculosis in Moose Factory.
Rita began day school in English and then in French at the Roman Catholic mission in Waskaganish. When she turned eight, Rita was sent to the Ste-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus residential school on Fort George Island until 1973. Then she attended school in Val-d’Or until she turned 16.
She lived on a trapline near La Sarre with her parents. She surprised the French people in town when they discovered she could speak their language. “They would visit and give me books in case I got bored,” she recalls.
Rita also made some money selling them her arts and crafts. “Then I met a man,” she laughs, gesturing towards a bashful Alan.
In 1979, their first daughter Stephanie was born. They were married at the school she was to work at in 1981. Today they have four sons, two daughters and 17 grandchildren.
Even after all those of years working in education, Rita doesn’t know the meaning of retirement. Today, Rita is still busy and involved in trying to raise funds for a new Anglican church to replace the crumbling St. Peter’s Church in Waskaganish. “The old one looks poor. There’s no running water, no heating, no bell and it’s mouldy,” she laments.
The congregation, which holds services only once a year, has wanted to renovate the church since the 1980s. The new St. Peter’s would stand beside the wellness centre just across the road from the old church. They started raising funds in 2017 by approaching the band council, businesses and private individuals.
Asked what she planned for her semi-retirement, Rita said she would travel and “enjoy life on the land and be a great Elder.”