University unlocks writer's hidden talent

(Edmonton) Norma Dunning did for her son what any parent would proudly do for a child: she gave her 27-year-old a ride to where he could start applying for college. But an exchange between mother and son at Freehorse Family Wellness Society took Dunning down a path she had been dreaming of for decades.

“While he was filling in the paperwork, I looked at him and thought, ‘Why do you get to do that and not me? School is for everyone,’” she recalls. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you fill one out and see what happens.’”

And so Dunning got the same form to apply for financial support from the Nunavut government so she could begin a journey toward fulfilling a dream she says she always had.

“At one point I leaned over to him and said, ‘Vincent, what did you put on number eight on the questionnaire?’ And he looked at me and said loudly, ‘This is not a test, mom.’ And then we both laughed.”

As she tells the story two years later, she laughs again—showing the sense of humour she carried with her the day she stepped into a university classroom for the first time ever.

“When I walked in, I knew that I was older than most people’s mothers,” Dunning says.

She was three months shy of 51 years old when she was accepted to study at the University of Alberta. “It was always my dream to get a degree. I knew I was smart and I deserved it. It’s one of those things that were bypassed in my youth, one of those things that didn’t get done, one of those things I wanted to do. I had children and I raised my family, and it was my time,” she says.

But she got a lot more than a degree from the U of A. In 27 months, she completed her bachelor of native studies, made the dean’s list and won awards in recognition of her talent—a talent she had been keeping hidden.

The path to discovering and developing that talent was paved by Val Napoleon, former U of A professor of native studies and law. Dunning says that every week, students wrote papers in response to readings in Napoleon’s class on oral traditions. “It took me about three weeks to figure out what she expected us to write,” Dunning says. “At the end of the year, Val came to me with all my papers and said, ‘You’ve got to do something with this.’”

Dunning submitted her writings and was accepted to minor in creative writing. “I’d always written, and would put my stories into my drawer when I was done with them. When [Val] told me that, it made me feel like I really wanted to learn more about writing, and to start putting my work out to see if anyone is interested in what I write.”

The first to show interest were members of the scholarship committee for the James Patrick Folinsbee Prize in English. Then came those for the Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize in Creative Writing—crowning Dunning its first recipient—and a magazine publisher in Vancouver, now reviewing Dunning’s novella, Annie Muktuk, for publication. An excerpt from the story will also appear in an upcoming issue of New Trail, the U of A alumni magazine.

“For me, writing is putting words on paper that my mother never got to speak, an outlet. And that’s important to me,” Dunning says. “She had a very silent kind of life. So a lot of the time putting words on paper is for her.”

Dunning says studying at the U of A has empowered her to share her writings with the rest of the world. She has received support from several others, including English and film studies professors Christine Stewart and Tom Wharton. Both reviewed one of Dunning’s two honours projects, for which she wrote two novellas and 14 poems.

“I was very fortunate to have these incredible wordsmiths review my work. They were very supportive of what I wrote. It was wonderful,” Dunning says. Her other honours project examined the “Eskimo identification” system in Canada. “From 1941 to 1978, Inuit people were issued a number and their names were removed. It’s called the disc system in Canada. I wanted to understand how come that system and those numbers still matter all these years later,” she says. 

Dunning was also one of five recipients of the TAQA North Aboriginal Governance and Partnership Scholar Award. She will continue her quest for knowledge about the disc system when the next school year starts.

“I’ve been accepted into the native studies master’s program. I’m one of the first people to be accepted to that program,” she says. “Education is a privilege, and to be accepted into the first-time offering of the program is a gift that will be handled with the deep respect of a happy and proud Inuk student. When I finish my master’s, I hope to teach. But I will always write—and I’m not going to put it in the drawer anymore.”