April 27, 2001 Halifax Herald

Noel Knockwood - Mi'kmaw Elder

Noel Knockwood, role model for all

Noel Raymond Knockwood, born in a very modest home on July 13, 1932 at Shubenacadie Indian Reserve to John and Theresa (Simon) Knockwood, was the last of five children, two girls and three boys. He also had two half-brothers and a half-sister from John's first marriage, which ended when his wife died. Knockwood today lives in Cole Harbour with Iretia Cox, his companion of ten years. Through previous relationships, he is the father of nine children and the Grandfather of eleven.

Noel was born at a time when things were extremely tuff for the provinces's Mi'kmaq. Their exclusion caused by racism before the Great Depression had made getting a job then very hard; but after it started; getting one was virtually impossible. Thus, hunger and deprivation were not strangers. Because of this, and the fact that there wasn't a school on the reserve, many Mi'kmaq families placed their children in the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. The experience was so traumatizing for many that it led Noel's sister Isabel to write a book entitled Out of the Depths (Roseway Publishing 1992) which describes the nightmare in detail.

Noel's residential school incarceration ended when he was transferred to a small on-reserve school that had opened in 1939. He, under the able tutelage of Elsie Basque, Nova Scotia's first licensed Mi'kmaq teacher, achieved grade eight. (In 1993, many of the surviving students of that era joined with Elsie at Indian Brook for a sentimental reunion and celebration. Taking great pride in the accomplishments of her former students, she describes it as "the most heart-warming experience of my life.")

In the early 1950s, Noel volunteered for military service. His stint included a year and a half of combat duty in Korea. For services rendered, he was awarded the United Nations Service Medal, Korean War Medal, and the Canadian Voluntary Service Medal - Korea.

After Korea Noel enjoyed some free time. Then in 1958, by enrolling at Success Business College in Truro, he began an education upgrade process that lasted off and on for over two decades. At various times, until he received his BA. from Saint Mary's University in May 1984, he attended institutions such as the Coady International Institute at St. F.X., from which he received a diploma in Community development.

In the midst of all this, by the 1970s Noel had acquired a serious personal problem that was threatening his future - a well-entrenched addiction to alcohol. Its cause can be largely attributed to the loss of self-esteem that victims of overt and systemic racism suffer. In the case of the Mi'kmaq, as was the case with a great many of Canada's First Nation Peoples, such feelings of inferiority were helped along tremendously by the fact that we were taught in youth that we were the descendants of heathen savages. Because of these unfounded stereotypes of savage ancestry, suffering degrading forms of racism was common for most from birth. Itís an experience that haunts victims for life.

Noel was inspired to get the monkey off his back by what he learned about his roots while employed in 1972 by MACS (Micmac Association of Cultural Studies). The historical information the organization had on hand about the proud traditions of the Mi'kmaq Nation and its ancient spirituality awed him and instilled in him a sense of pride. The teachings of the Great Spirit were especially helpful in mastering his addiction. This year, he celebrates his 29th year of sobriety, a proud accomplishment.

In 1975, Noel was appointed to the Mi'kmaq Grand Council as a spiritual leader of the Mi'kmaq People. In this capacity, among other duties, he often leads multi-racial groups in prayers to the Great Spirit. One of his current projects is lobbying the provincial government to recognize traditional Mi'kmaq marriage ceremonies performed by spiritual leaders such as he under the Solemnization of Marriage Act.

Over the decades, Knockwood has been heavily involved in teaching activities - sharing his knowledge with students at Dalhousie and other universities, the Friendship Centre, federal and provincial Government Departments, etc. Today, he is Language and Culture Instructor at the Mi'kmaq Children's Centre in Halifax and is actively involved in running a small consultant business.

On March 27, 2000, Noel was appointed Sergeant-At-Arms to the Nova Scotia Legislature. He says of this appointment, "it takes care of the ceremonial, now for some substance." Knockwood wants to see the Nova Scotia government use affirmative action to end Mi'kmaq exclusion and place qualified individuals in top governmental management positions. This he would like to see done sooner, rather than later.

Itís always inspiring to see an individual from a deprived Nation find the courage to overcome great impediments and succeed. By refusing to permit two of societies greatest curses, alcoholism and racism, to defeat him in his bid for excellence, Knockwood has proven he is such an individual. Hats off to a man whose courage and dedication have made him a role model for all people in this province.

Noel, my friend, may the Great Spirit continue to motivate and keep you safe for years to come!

Daniel N. Paul


Home   Column Index 2001   Web Site Map