Marlene Clifton

BridgingThe Beat of Education: Marlene Clifton Connects Culture and Communities with Schools

A connector, a drummer and a singer, Marlene Clifton is a Gitksan woman who has helped learners and their families find the beat and the rhythm of education. She’s the fifth of ten siblings, a member of the killer whale clan and fireweed is her family’s crest. She’s been married to her husband, Charles Clifton, for 48 years, and he is a member of Tsimshian Nation and of the eagle clan. They have four children between them. 

For almost forty years, Clifton worked in Prince Rupert School District substitute teaching, providing childcare, supervision, doing secretarial and library assistant work, before finishing up as an Aboriginal family support worker. In that role, she would rebuild relationships between parents and the school system. As the chair of the Aboriginal Education Council for a decade, she negotiated different cultural programs in the schools. 

Outside of her work, she volunteered in sports with her kids and now she has two granddaughters and a great grandson. While she’s technically retired, she still runs a drumming program in her school district. With permission from her chiefs, she shares her songs with the kids and they are allowed to share the songs they learn with their families but can’t share them otherwise, in keeping with cultural protocols. 

A few years ago, Clifton’s family moved to Victoria, almost three years now to get better access to healthcare for her husband and she facilitates drumming and drum making workshops there, too. Living closer to more of their family, her husband is able to access more care and has become more independent again. Moving from a small town to a big city was a big adjustment but they have met nice people and have settled in.  

Despite working in the school system, Clifton left school herself in grade 11. She had a young daughter and was dating her husband. They got married a few years later and had the rest of their kids. He made enough money for her to stay home and she babysat and stayed home with the kids. She would volunteer her time at the school to ensure her kids were being treated fairly, telling stories and teaching beadwork. She helped out with their swim program and finally after a few years the principal suggested she apply for a job so she could get paid since she was at the school every day anyways. Her youngest child was starting kindergarten and she decided to go for it. 

At one point, she took a year off to take a business administration course because she was unsure she wanted to stay in the classrooms all the time. She had been working in Port Edward and moved into Prince Rupert to work in different schools. At one point she was offered a job at the high school and she was worried about working with teens but it ended up being one of the best jobs she had.

From there, Clifton worked as a secretary, replacing someone until they returned from leave. She applied for an Aboriginal family resource worker position but was unsuccessful because she didn’t have enough education. She worked in childcare and went to night school to get the courses she needed so she would be successful the next time a position became available… and she was.  “I try to encourage kids to say the more education you’ve got, the more doors open up for you,” she beams. For years she did that important connecting work, bridging kids, families, administration, teachers and everyone else in the school system. 

Thinking of youth who might be thinking about leaving their community to go live and learn somewhere, she reflects on her own experience and how instrumental family support is. At one point, she moved to Vancouver to go to school as an adult and stayed with her sister and even as a friendly person she really struggled to connect with people. 

"If you've got a goal in mind and a dream, don't let anything stop you from at least attempting it."

She also suggests leaving with a purpose in mind. “Don't just go and flounder around, because that's not going to help you at all. But if you've got a goal in mind and a dream, don't let anything stop you from at least attempting it,” she urges. Additionally, Clifton recommends being kind to others if you want them to be kind to you and to be careful what you say because you can’t take it back. If she could give her younger self advice it would be, “Believe in yourself.” She believes that everyone is where they are supposed to be as the Creator intended and that one’s path is already mapped out. 

To maintain her mental health, Clifton focuses on her grandson and on living day by day, knowing tomorrow is never promised. She tries to find peace within herself and tries not to stress about things in advance, waiting until worry is actually needed. It’s something she’s tried to pass onto her kids but she finds they are more prone to worry than she is. “Whatever obstacle comes in front of you, you're gonna be able to tackle it. Even if you can't, it's not going to be there forever,” she reassures.

"What comes tomorrow is not going to stop just because you're stressing about it."

For inspiration, Clifton looks to her family. From her husband’s niece to her daughters, grandson, granddaughters and everyone else she spends time with, family is everything to her. The other thing that inspires her is being able to be of assistance. “Just waking up and knowing I can be helpful to somebody, I think that's what inspires me most,” she grins.

To inspire Indigenous youth, Clifton shares, “There are still good people out there. Find them, especially if you need someone to talk to. There's always someone there. Don't be afraid to take chances. Our people are very, very afraid of change. I know it's hard because I hate change. But sometimes you just gotta bite that bullet and do it. It's okay to fall flat on your face. Just get up and start over.”

As a connector, a drummer and a singer, Marlene Clifton has helped Indigenous learners and their families find harmony with the world of education. Learning to let go of worry and embrace change, she’s raised her family to be brave. Knowing the doors of the classroom open doors in the world, she’s ushered young people in towards a brighter tomorrow and helped them see themselves in school spaces.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

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

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