The opportunity came just over three years ago when he was asked to teach in Fox Lake, a small Cree community (population 1,773) in northern Alberta.
It was an unexpected development for MacDonald, who taught Canadian law and business education at Cobequid Educational Centre (CEC) in Truro for 37 years before retiring in 2007.
“I certainly didn’t realize that soon after retirement, I’d be going back to work,” said MacDonald, 66. “Two major factors contributed to me continuing my teaching career in isolation in Alberta.”
One occurred when a woman visited the MacDonald home in Cape Breton and showed the family slides about her experience teaching school in northern Canada.
“I was impressed and I have always remembered this lady,” said MacDonald, who was a young boy at the time. “I thought about this for many years and I held onto the dream of someday experiencing a new culture.”
The second factor occurred in August, 2009 when he received a call from former CEC colleague Adrian McMaster regarding a Grade 8 teaching position in Fox Lake.
“Adrian called me out of the blue during my second year of retirement,” said MacDonald. “I forwarded my resume to Jean Baptiste Swepagaham School and things quickly began to happen.”
MacDonald took a September flight to Edmonton and then boarded a bus to High Level, Alta.
“I was picked up by the school’s vice-principal in his four-wheel jeep. I still had a long way to go through the woods and muskeg. We drove for close to three hours over rough conditions, rocky roads and across a river with no bridge. That was an adventure. I enjoyed the whole thing.”
MacDonald arrived in Fox Lake (about a 12-hour drive north of Edmonton) on a Wednesday and was in the classroom the next day.
“I couldn’t believe. I just kept saying ‘yes’ to everything. English was the school’s main language but Cree was the native language. I taught all Grade 8 subjects except phys-ed and Cree language. All students were native with the exception of one.”
The community had one grocery store, an RCMP station with two officers, a Catholic Church, a band office, a nursing station and the school.
“Most of the people lived out in the woods,” said MacDonald. “Some students traveled to school on regular school buses, others came on wagon-buses pulled by horses. These wagons were interesting. They had stoves on the back so that the students could keep warm.”
Winters, not surprisingly, are very cold and the school gymnasium serves as the centre of the community. Bingos, community meetings, school functions and many sports competitions were held in the gym. Adults, including MacDonald, often joined in.
The community also set up an actual native working village for a week each year behind the school.
“The elders of the community would teach the children old ways,” MacDonald said. “These people are very committed to preserving the Cree language. In the gym, round dancing was very common. It was all fascinating. It really felt that you were living in the old days in a native village.”
MacDonald taught three school terms in Fox Lake. He would return home for a week each year at Christmastime and six weeks during the summer.
“It was a wonderful experience,” MacDonald said. “It would have been perfect if my wife Beatrice could have been with me. It was a dream come true. The people treated me well. They were fine people.”
Before MacDonald left permanently for Nova Scotia during last summer, there were lots of hugs from students and friends from the community.
“They are not a very emotional people,” MacDonald said. “The Cree are actually slow to get to know. They’re a little guarded. But some of the friendships I left behind were very strong.”
Lyle Carter’s column appears every Tuesday in the Truro Daily News. If you have a column idea, contact him at 673-2857.