Never too old to learn, Naomi Abotossaway completes Lakehead U. program

Aundeck Omni Kaning’s Naomi Abotossaway has made learning a life-long passion.

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—When Naomi Abotossaway moved from Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) to Thunder Bay more than 35 years ago, most people knew her better as Olga Cywink, but she has always kept up close ties with her Manitoulin friends and family.

“I wanted to go to school,” noted Ms. Abotossaway on her decision to move to Northwestern Ontario. She originally set out to gain her nursing degree, but marriage to Nolan Abotossaway derailed those plans after two years as she settled into married life and raise their four children.

“Fifty years ago I left school,” she said. Although she doesn’t regret her decision, following her retirement in 2018 Ms. Abotossaway decided to take another look at academia and enrolled in the gerontology program at Lakehead University. “It took me two years to finish my degree,” she said. “I received two years of credit for my nursing studies.”

Ms. Abotossaway has passed on her love of education to her children: a son is an environmental engineer, a daughter has a BA in television broadcasting, another daughter is a lawyer in Thunder Bay and the youngest son is currently studying at college in Thunder Bay.

The decision to return to school came to Ms. Abotossaway following a road trip to Nova Scotia she took following her retirement.

Today, she works with elderly clients coming into Thunder Bay from Northern communities. “It’s a big challenge,” she admitted. “It’s going to be a lot of work when I get back after my vacation, but it is very rewarding.”

Ms. Abotossaway was back in the district last year for a workshop held at Dreamer’s Rock, Sunshine Alley, in her original home community of Whitefish River First Nation. “It was at the powwow grounds and there were four artists there, Leland Bell, James Jacko and two others,” she said. The workshop was aimed at healing for the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Ms. Abotossaway, along with other participants, was invited to choose an artist to work with.

“I walked around the tent and finally decided to choose James Jacko,” she said. “It was just a feeling that it was right.”

Over the next few days Ms. Abotossaway worked with Mr. Jacko to place her impressions, memories and feelings onto canvas. The result was an original work of art that is to be displayed in an exhibition in Toronto. Ms. Abotossaway received a copy of her work on canvas to take home, which she picked up on this visit.

“I am pretty pleased with how it turned out,” said Ms. Abotossaway. “There are many ways of learning.”

Ms. Abotossaway is the sister of Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink, a 31-year-old woman who was pregnant when her body was found on August 30, 1994 in London, Ontario and whose murder remains unsolved to this day.

Ms. Abotossaway remembers her sister, not as a victim, but as a shining light who could bring laughter into a room the moment she walked in. “The night before the workshop, I didn’t know what I wanted,” she said. “I knew I wanted a tipi and a woman looking off to the horizon.”

Soon other images came to mind, including a feather and storm clouds. “The feather symbolizes how we talk to the Creator,” she said. “The eagle takes our prayers upwards. When a feather falls to earth we hold that and can talk to our Creator, and we need to do that. The eagle takes the message to the Creator and we continue with our journey.”

“The healing part is the storm clouds, it comes from my heart. They connect everything—the earth, the trees and the plants, the air, the sky, all living things on the planet. We need to respect all things on the planet. I will try to do that as I continue my journey.”