Leslie McCue on Breaking Stereotypes, Building Cultural Awareness, and Teaching

A Q&A with the Manager of Indigenous Learning and Programs at ROM

In lieu of a baby, Leslie McCue cradled a plush toy shark.

This was in 2018, back when Leslie, a member of the Mississaugas of Curve Lake First Nation, was working as an Indigenous Museum Educator. She was in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples Art & Culture, teaching a group of visitors how to use a tikinagan, which is the Anishinaabemowin term for cradleboard. And, because she didn’t have a baby for the demonstration, she carefully and lovingly wrapped the shark.

That’s when the screaming started.

It was a little baby, whose parents were mortified—apologizing profusely and promising to leave. But Leslie was unbothered.

“I love when the Educators bring their kids into the space,” she said. “Because I want young people to feel safe and to feel like they grow up here at ROM.”

So, Leslie asked the parents if she could share knowledge on the cradleboard. The parents agreed and passed their baby to Leslie. She carefully wrapped the baby in the tikinagan, lacing the leather hide side to side.

“When I got to the last loop, the baby stopped crying,” she said. “So I was able to walk around the First Peoples Gallery and continue teaching and sharing.”

When Leslie handed the baby back, they were sound asleep.

Left: Teaching a group of children about the tikinagan in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples Art & Culture. Centre: Leslie in front of an array of artistic and cultural belongings at ROM. Right: Looking out at Lovesick Lake, where she spent many summers fishing, swimming, canoeing, and spending time with her Mishomis (grandfather).

This, Leslie says, is her favourite ROM memory. But over her more than decade-long career at ROM—during which she’s gone from working on the Indigenous Advisory Circle to, in 2023, leading the entire Indigenous Learning and Programs team—she has taught tens of thousands more people, and accumulated dozens more memories, many of them just as sweet, others more challenging.

This is our conversation.

Making cross-cultural connections seems very important to you. Why is that?

Breaking stereotypes and raising cultural awareness is at the heart of everything I do. 

We had an international group come in recently that had never heard of residential schools. They had never heard about the type of inequities Indigenous Peoples face here in this city or in our communities, and they were blown away by seeing the First Peoples Gallery. They thought it was something that lived in the past. And so I think it’s important Indigenous Museum Educators are here to share lived experiences because we can give that experience and share that history. 

Sometimes we’re the first point of contact for people to hear about the Sixties Scoop, about residential schools, about missing and murdered Indigenous women and more. Some people have never heard of the roadblocks that Indigenous Peoples face every day, and rarely hear about the success stories and resilience.

That’s got to be emotionally taxing, no?

It's definitely an emotionally labour-intensive job at times, but also rewarding. One thing I try to offer the Indigenous Museum Educators is moments for self-care, time to spend at community events, and ways to support connection building. In the new year, we’re starting an Elder-in-Residence program with local Indigenous Elders to support the team behind the scenes.

I get the sense that teaching is as much a passion as it is a vocation for you. Where does this passion come from?

In spaces that I've been in, I've often seen that void of knowledge about our people. And the media isn't always a good spot for that information, but at times the only place they hear about Indigenous Peoples. When people do hear about Indigenous Peoples in the media, our people are often villainized. So, I've always felt like it's kind of my responsibility to teach and share knowledge with others. Our parents, grandparents, and people who have come before us didn't always have that privilege. There were many parts of our cultures and ways of life in Canada that were illegal for our people to partake in, such as dancing, speaking our language, participating in ceremonies, gathering in groups, and more. I feel it's part of my responsibility to be proud of who I am, to champion that for students visiting the Museum, and for the team of educators to be proud of who they are, so that we're comfortable in spaces like museums. It’s okay to take up space.

In addition to working here, you’re also a performer and artist. Tell me about that side of you. 

Some people in our community start dancing once they take their first footsteps. Even before we start walking, we still get that rhythm and that bounce. And if you hear the drum beat, we say it's the heartbeat of mother earth, the land we walk on. And so, you pick that up when you're in the womb with your mother. You hear that heartbeat. Then you hear that beat when you come to this world in our songs.

I've been dancing since a young age, and I'm part of a dance collective called Odawa Wiingushk, which means Ottawa Sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is one of our four sacred medicines in this area. We use it for a practice called smudging and cleansing, and it's imagery we have also incorporated in the Youth Cabinet mural at ROM in a permanent installation.

I dance because some of my ancestors weren't allowed to dance or, when they were older, haven’t felt comfortable. I dance to inspire younger people in my family and in my community and for those who can’t. Recently, my cousin finally came to me and said, “I want to dance; can you help me make my regalia?” It was one of the happiest days of my life. I was so proud to see her coming into the dance circle, proud of who she is as an Anishinaabe woman. 

You’ve always struck me as someone unafraid to speak their mind. And, earlier this year, the Museum gave you an award for courage, so I’m clearly not alone in that sentiment. But I’m more curious how you see yourself.  

I like to consider myself a mentor and somebody that champions change, but I don't need the accolades as there is much more work to be done. I’m grateful to be acknowledged by ROM and my colleagues.

I always feel weird about receiving praise for my work because I wouldn't be here without the people that have mentored and supported me along the way. I don't want to cry, but Sara Roque-baa, who is no longer with us in the physical realm and who advised on work at the Museum, was a dear friend and a mentor to me. J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth and Wendy Ng, who brought me to the Museum; Denise Bolduc, Elwood Jimmy, Raven Cotnam, and Jillian Sutherland, who continue to be there for me, too. Folks like Sara-baa, who weren't scared to speak their truth, to ensure their voice was included in rooms that normally weren't meant for our people, paved the way for me to be able to do that as well. 

Are they the reason being a mentor is so important to you?

For sure. It’s also just the way that our cultures work. We look up to our Elders, we look up to our grandparents, we look up to older people in our community because their knowledge is what got us here. Their resilience, their strength, their determination is why we're in spaces and rooms like this.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.