Charlene Smoke

Educational Role Model: Charlene Smoke Fashions A Career in the Classroom

She was a fashion model and now she’s an educational role model. The path she’s walked is inspiring. Charlene Smoke comes from the Turtle clan and is a member of the Alderville First Nation. Her spirit name is Yellow Star Woman and she is Anishinaabe, Mohawk and Métis. Born in the Vancouver area, she has lived in Agassiz for over a decade. She taught at the Sts’ailes First Nation school for eight years and fell in love with the people of the land. 

These days, Smoke teaches grade five and has a passion for Indigenous education, something many Indigenous people didn’t have access to growing up. She works at an independent private school in Maple Ridge and chairs the Indigenous education committee at the school along with the Indigenous education working group at the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia. 

Growing up between Winnipeg and Vancouver, she went to four or five elementary schools and quit in grade ten to pursue modelling. Later on, she went to Langara’s Aboriginal Studies program as a mature student and loved it. From there, she completed her Bachelor’s degree through UBC’s First Nations Studies program. 

After graduating, she worked at the First Nations Education Steering Committee and remembered her childhood desire to become a teacher, the way she used to pretend to teach her dolls. Smoke went to SFU to get her teaching degree and started teaching until she decided to get her master’s degree. She graduated with a Master’s in Educational Leadership. 

Before she was a teacher, she was discovered as a model at a skytrain station and with the help of a modelling agency, she was able to travel to New York, Paris and even to one of her home communities. Through modelling, Smoke became connected with the Indigenous arts community and got to model for Indigenous designer Pam Baker. 

Travelling and working abroad wasn’t scary for Smoke who has always been independent and learned early to take care of herself. She had been kicked out of the house and was living on her own so she was comfortable navigating new situations, people and places. Living in survival mode, she felt protected from fear. 

“I really felt like I had my ancestors with me. I was definitely in situations that were dangerous and my instincts always got me out of it. Even though I was alone, disconnected from family and friends and a child out there in the world, there was always something that grounded me,” she recalls. 

Her advice for Indigenous youth considering leaving their home communities is to be grateful and to remember they aren’t really alone, they have their ancestors with them. Smoke suggests connecting with the school’s Indigenous student services. She credits her ability to graduate to the support of counsellors, elders, her peers and the supportive environment she had at school. “Just remember that you're doing something that's not just for yourself, but for everybody else, and you're paving the way,” she urges.

"Just remember that you're doing something that's not just for yourself, but for everybody else, and you're paving the way"

After her difficult childhood, Smoke had a lot of trauma and interpersonal problems. She coped with drugs and alcohol and didn’t always have money for food or rent. As a single parent studying to become a teacher, a break-in in the middle of the night left her and her son with PTSD.  

She pushed through her studies and her practicum because she couldn’t take time off without having to start over. “It's really sad that’s the way the system is, but you have to be prepared. How are you going to deal with life? Because life happens, and especially for us Indigenous people, there's a whole other layer of complex issues,” she reflects.  

While studying at UBC, she got pregnant and had her baby who she would bring to class so she could finish her degree. She didn’t ask for permission because she didn’t have other options. “I don't know how I did it. But I did,” she recalls, thinking of how she overcame so many obstacles with the help of friends, family and strong women who welcomed her into their homes and comforted her with tea.  

Sometimes she thinks she should have paused and taken better care of herself but in the end, she went to therapy, got the support she needed and reconciled with her son’s father. They’ve been together for two decades now and their son is the first in the family to graduate from high school and go right to university. 

If she could give her younger self advice it would be, “Keep doing what you're doing. Trust your gut instincts, that feeling that you have a purpose. There's a reason why you're able to deal with the things that you're that you're dealing with. Just keep pushing through. It'll all work out in the end.” 

She would also say, “Return to culture, language and ceremony sooner…I truly believe culture saves lives. It saved mine. I'm so happy to be in the place where I am now.” As the first in her family to take an interest and try to understand culture, ceremony and the language, Smoke says, “I feel like that’s a gift. That's where we can regain some strength.”

To maintain her mental health, Smoke stays connected to friends and family members like her brother. She likes to walk and spend time in nature with her dog. Simplifying life and finding balance was important for her. Eating well and planning for the future helps her stay mentally well. Driving an hour to and from work, she spends time releasing stress and she sees eagles every day. 

When it comes to inspiration, she came away with a lot at the Indspire National Gathering for Indigenous Education. In the past two decades, there has been so much growth and resiliency and there has been movement from high school graduation being the goal to writing books and articles, curriculum development, collaboration and representation in education as a profession. Hearing the stories of fellow professionals whose stories echo her own motivates her, too. To inspire Indigenous youth, she says, “Go with your dreams, your gut feeling. I really feel having a vision really helps drive and support you. Have a vision and stick to it.” 

She was a fashion model and now Charlene Smoke is an educational role model. The path she’s walked is inspiring and she is still leading the way in the classroom. She travelled all around the world and found her way back to support Indigenous learners, preparing them for their own journeys. With so much wisdom to share, her words of inspiration are always in style.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    May 15, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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