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“Unrelenting” Val Hiebert recognized with Nellie Award nomination
by Isabella Selk
“I’m no Nellie McClung, but I do as much as I can with who I am.”
Val Hiebert has been a remarkable presence at Providence for many years, and she has recently been nominated for a Nellie Award—a prestigious recognition from the Nellie McClung Foundation.
Coming as a married, mature student with two young sons, she made the transition from full-time caregiver to part-time student on the day of her 30th birthday, deciding to come to Providence to meet with the head of the Theatre program and to take a course. Given her passion for theatre, she intended take a drama class. Unbeknownst to her, there were no drama courses offered during that period at first-year level, but, intrigued by some of the courses available, she decided to register for Sociology of Religion.
“I thought it sounded really fascinating!” explains Val. “I went to the first class, and this Dr. Hiebert guy went up there and used more big words than I had ever heard in my life. It terrified me. After class I explained to him that I wouldn’t be taking the class after all.”
Unaware that it was actually an upper-level course, she dropped it after that first lecture, but not before her encounter with professor and future friend and colleague Dennis Hiebert (no relation).
“After meeting Val around 2000, we became great personal friends,” says Dr. Hiebert. “I taught her sociology and she drew me in to theatre, which was an extremely enjoyable part of my life. We have also run marathons together, have gone on many trips together with our spouses, and we are all very close.”
True to her character, Val did not just give up on Sociology.
After taking a course in Marriage and Family, and loving it, and then taking the Introduction to Sociology course with an eye to seeing the breadth of the discipline, she decided to commit to completing a degree with a major in the social sciences. As she spent more time at Providence, her interpersonal impact on all around her grew.
“I think one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Val is that I’ve never met anybody who is as caring of other people as she is,” says Dr. Hiebert. “Whether you are her friend or not, she is for you as a person. She is constantly looking for ways to connect with or help others.”
Theatre was one of the ways in which Val chose to use her voice.
While she graduated with a degree in Social Science and continued to focus on Sociology in her later Master and Doctoral studies, her passion for the stage never waned. Through theatre, she told the stories of the marginalized, focusing on such themes as disability, feminism, and the residential school experience. Directing and acting in many productions at Providence, she used her talent to promote equality and fight for social justice.
After graduating from Providence, Val transitioned to teaching Sociology classes while obtaining her Master’s Degree from the University of Manitoba. She also continued parenting her sons and remained actively involved in the church she helped establish with her husband and others: Mitchell Community Fellowship.
Further opportunity
Val’s role as Assistant Professor of Sociology at Providence now gives her further opportunity to reach a diverse group of individuals. Cathy Rust-Akinbolaji, the school’s Assistant Professor of TESOL, counts her as a close confidante and friend.
“Her authenticity is one of the first things that comes to mind. She is good at speaking the truth in love, even when what you really need is a good kick in the pants!” laughs Rust-Akinbolaji. “I personally appreciate that she does not allow negative self-talk in her presence.”
Students and professors alike speak fondly of Val, which is hardly a surprise as her favourite part of teaching is interacting with the students, themselves. Comparing teaching to gardening—another one of her passions—she takes pleasure in planting ideas and seeing what they will grow into for each student.
“She has impacted me greatly with how much heart and passion she teaches with, as well as how she uses those characteristics in conversations with her students.” says Jess Caul, a Providence student. “She has grace in everything she does, and she stands up for what she believes in. That is the one thing that I really admire about her. She is such an inspiration to me.”
Amidst everything she was taking on, in 2009 Val was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Increasingly active in both Sociology and Theatre, she was forced to pull back and reconsider her focus.
“Theatre was not a good idea for my health. I ended up stepping out of it and focusing almost entirely on Sociology,” she explains.
“When I received the diagnosis from the doctor, I remember thinking that the best thing I could do for my kids is to teach them how to die well, which is really about teaching them how to live well. I also remember thinking that I had so much left I wanted to do in the world, on so many justice issues. I told God that if losing my voice was in the plan then so be it, but I would not surrender to it. If this is what I have then I’ll have MS, but it’s not going to have me.”
Works tirelessly
Given her broad range of passions, Val works tirelessly to advocate for a number of social justice issues close to her heart. Coming from a background where she didn’t feel she had a voice, she initially tackled gender equality—finding her voice so she could help others.
“Any justice work I do in my life is always in the context of continuing to work for women having a voice,” she says. “I want my voice so that I can use my voice. I think it’s important to continue to foster strong women, to teach on issues of gender, to call out both men and women to live in dignity-granting ways with each other.”
Her advocacy for gender equality shows up in all aspects of her life: in marriage, in parenting, in teaching, and in how she understands her position at Providence. It is one of many areas that aligns her social justice work with that of Nellie McClung—an author, teacher, advocate, and legislator who worked for the universal enfranchisement of women.
“Val has this incredible combination of insight, courage, and charm that draws people to her,” says Dr. Hiebert. "As a friend, if she is for you, she is a force. She will fight for anything or anybody. Her great-great-grandmother was known as 'a force', so it’s just in Val’s blood. She is unrelenting.”
Nominated for a Nellie Award, to be presented in January, Val has now joined an esteemed group of females recognized for their contributions to social justice, the arts, and the advancement of women. (Providence alumna Deborah Olukoju is a fellow nominee.)
All those nominated must have ongoing ties to the province of Manitoba, have worked in a role that has significantly impacted others, particularly women, and have reflected the spirit of Nellie McClung. The Nellies are co-sponsored by the Winnipeg Free Press and the Nellie McClung Foundation.
“It’s an incredible honour,” says Val. I have admired Nellie McClung for a very long time. She is so homegrown and so prairie and so feisty. She would just roll up her sleeves and get it done. I’m not in a league with Nellie McClung; I’m really not. But I’m so honoured.”
Click HERE to watch Val Hiebert deliver her 2015 PROVFtalks lecture “Too Sexy Too Soon: The Commercialization and Sexualization of Childhood.”
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