The only person Iakenhniseriiostha McGregor has ever wanted to be like is her grandmother, Amelia McGregor.
“She has the ability to accomplish anything she puts her mind and heart into,” Iakenhniseriiostha said. “I can only imagine what I, and my children, and my children’s children will continue to do because of that gift she’s embedded in all of us.”
The latest accomplishment in Amelia’s lifelong list of achievements is no small feat. On May 30, she will be awarded an honorary degree from McGill University, making her Amelia Tekwatonti McGregor, doctor of science.
“I heard the news a few weeks ago, and I was kind of numb. That’s the only way I can describe it. I thought it was a joke!” Amelia said. “It’s kind of sinking in now, how big it is.”
Amelia is being recognized by McGill in part due to her contributions to health promotion and community education, specifically through her work in helping found the Kahnawake School Diabetes Prevention Program (KSDPP) in 1994. She explained that her long-term involvement came about somewhat by accident, when nobody else was available to sit in on a school committee meeting as a representative of the fledgling project.
“I put up my hand and said I was willing to go and get the information and bring it back, but in my mind it was only for that one meeting,” Amelia explained. It wasn’t long before Amelia’s involvement was permanent, and KSDPP was on its way to becoming the impactful community healthcare project that it is today, conducting community-based participatory research and training on diabetes prevention. “It all just snowballed from there. It just fell into place,” she continued.
Over the years, Amelia has travelled the world presenting on participatory research and sharing findings from Kahnawake’s own experiences with diabetes, explaining how other communities can implement their own programs and studies to further diabetes prevention. Her expertise has taken her to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond.
“It’s really nice to see that a lot of other people have ideas too,” she said. “We share whatever we’ve done. And they share with us too.”
Though Amelia was motivated by a desire to serve her community and protect future generations, there is another person that has inspired her diabetes prevention work.
“My mother was my hero,” Amelia said. “She was always my role model.”
Amelia’s mother, Sarah Karihwaie’ne McComber, lived with diabetes throughout her life and experienced a great deal of pain after a traumatic car crash caused damage to her arm. Doctors were unable to amputate her arm due to the instability of her blood sugar levels.
“I saw how she was living with diabetes and how she suffered for it, so I tell her story,” Amelia said. “All the things that she had to go through, she was in hospital for so long. I find the inspiration from her being brave.”
Though Amelia is ever humble – “I’m a person that likes to wash dishes or sweep the floors, not to stand in front!” she says – it’s remarkable how much of what inspired her about her mother now lives on within her, and inspires her grandchildren, as well as other community members. Part of McGill’s decision to recognize Amelia with an honorary doctorate also acknowledges this influence that Amelia has had as a role model to her family, both blood-related and not.
“Growing up, my ma has always told me that I could talk to her about anything, that nothing was off the table,” explained Iakenhniseriiostha, noting that when she felt misunderstood by every other adult in her life, Amelia was there for her. “She embraced me for all my differences and loved me for who I am inside.”
Another of Amelia’s granddaughters, Karonhianó:ron McGregor, expressed a similar sentiment, underlining the importance of Amelia’s contributions as a leader and role model within the community. She explained that Amelia’s impact will be seen in the lives of future generations.
“Both of my grandparents have volunteered to help within the community for many years. It makes me proud that people are acknowledging that because they don’t ask for anything in return. They do it out of the kindness of their hearts,” Karonhianó:ron said. “I just feel very proud and emotional, and it motivates me to encourage my future children to do the same.”
Amelia didn’t need an honorary degree for Karonhianó:ron to understand her heart and intellect – but she’s delighted that others will now also get the privilege of learning about her grandmother’s work.
“My grandma has always been the backbone to our family, always giving her advice and taking her time to really listen to us when we need it,” she said. “I’m not surprised that all her hard work is being acknowledged in such a great way. She’s always been volunteering her time within the community for years, so it’s very much due.”
Amelia will be recognized at McGill’s convocation alongside other Indigenous scholars, activists, and artists, such as Anishinaabe playwright Drew Hayden Taylor. However, while it’s meaningful for McGill to be finally recognizing the work of Indigenous people, Amelia noted that it’s important to remember that she and her peers got to where they are today because of their own hard work and dedication.
“We pass through their doors because our people have earned it,” she said. “Not because McGill just gave it to them.”
To her community and family, Amelia will always be a renowned leader and powerful matriarch – her upcoming honorary degree just makes it official.
“She didn’t embark on this journey for praise,” said Iakenhniseriiostha. “From start to finish, she just cared a whole lot.”
Amelia will be recognized at the health sciences convocation ceremony on Tuesday, May 30, at 10 a.m. at McGill University.