Maggie MacDonnell wins a coveted global teacher prize for her work in a remote Inuit community in northern Quebec.
Educator Maggie McDonnell grew up in Afton, N.S., a town with "more cows than people," she says. So, in 2010, when she was offered a teaching position in Salluit, Nunavik, a remote fly-in village with 1,300 residents—four times the size of her hometown—she gleefully accepted. She packed up her belongings in Africa, where she had spent the past five years working and volunteering with refugees and in an HIV-AIDS orphanage, to move up to Quebec's second-northernmost Inuit community.
In Salluit, nestled in the Canadian Arctic, accessible only by air and with high rates of teacher turnover where many don't break the six-month mark, MacDonnell quietly hustled away at her job for nearly seven years. Then, earlier this year, she received a life-changing call: She won the $1 million Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. This momentous endorsement was no small feat, considering that she beat out an overwhelming 20,000 nominees from 179 countries.
"Maggie so impressed and inspired the judging academy with her commitment to working with the underserved communities from her own country and combatting unique challenges with concrete solutions," says Vikas Pota, chief executive of the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation, the benefactor of the largest prize of its kind. During her tenure, MacDonnell has had to deal with a number of student issues, including high youth suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy. And her holistic approach to education reaches far beyond academics: She helped build a community kitchen and a fitness centre, set up a running club for the village, as well as a life-skills program for girls, and temporarily fostered a few kids. "She's more than just a great Canadian; she's a citizen of the earth," says Pota.
With the proceeds from her award, MacDonnell plans to start an NGO with environmental youth-focused programs. "One of my hopes is to create a kayak program, which will give youth access to the land, physical activity and environmental stewardship," she says.
It was her own early years on the mainland—running wild with her siblings through their woodlot or riding bikes to the nearby beach, and going to school with Indigenous children from the reserve next to her house—that eventually combined to make up her lifework: using physical activity as a conduit to youth development. "From early on, I was aware of the opportunities available to me because I was Scottish-Acadian, and the drastic disparity between my life and theirs," says MacDonnell.
As summer turns to fall, the star teacher hopes to make it back to the East Coast in time to see the rolling forests change colour. "They appear to catch on fire—it's magical." And though she's lived in various corners of the world, she says, "I still identify as a Nova Scotian—it's a place that will always be home to me."
This Nova Scotia–born teacher shares some of her favourite things to do in the province.
1. Drive along the Cabot Trail, a scenic roadway that loops through Cape Breton Island, then walk or hike the Skyline Trail.
2. Paddleboard, kayak and fish on beautiful Margaree River, which is famous for salmon in Canada.
3. A seafood meal—or two—is essential. Be sure to have lobster, crab cakes and a bowl of seafood chowder.