Sandra Alderson Warren

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DrSandiWarren.jpg Sandi, beloved former student, friend, colleague, indigenous scholar, died December 27, 2008

I first knew Sandi as an undergraduate student in the course I teach at York called Gender Issues in Management (it used to be called Women and Business but we changed it to be inclusive of women in non-business organizations). She used the project she did in the course to change jobs at Dofasco Steel (she is from Burlington) from a traditionally male dominated world of computers to a new position in Equity for Dofasco. She came back the following year to talk to the new students in the course about her experiences. Indeed, she came back every year. She graduated from York with a B.A. in Women’s Studies. Along the way, she had an experience that changed her life.

At a family reunion, someone said something about how “we are all here together”. Her grandfather (her mother’s father) spoke up and said, “No; we are not all here; I have a sister”. With tears running down his face, he kept insisting he had a sister. He was not all that old, and not known for just saying crazy things, and eventually he told the family that he had just remembered – when he was very very young, his mother was raising two children alone, and the State in all its wisdom decided that she (an “Indian”) was not capable of raising both of them so they GAVE HIM AWAY. He was left at the door of the new home, watching in tears as his mother and sister were driven away. He never saw them again, and he worked like a slave for these people, living in the barn with the animals. He never remembered this until the day of the family reunion.

For Sandi it explained all sorts of things, like why she always tanned very dark in the summertime, her facial features, her deep connection with the land, many things. Her grandfather, and her mother, and now she it turned out, were Métis, Senecas. She took to her new identity as she did everything else, in full measure. She went to the southwest US to study with a Shaman. She grew her hair long, went to work for a Native Women’s group, did a masters degree in distance education, by distance, all the while also studying her new family, her new heritage, her new culture, and embracing it. As she came each year to talk with the new GIM students, she would bring things from her new culture and share them with us. She brought her drum and sang for us (something she eventually told me terrified her!). My students, most of them “hardened business types” I feared would not understand, but they loved it, they loved her. She brought her medicine wheel and explained it to them, taught with it.

Eventually, Sandi was accepted into the Native Studies programme at Trent University. There she went on a fast that was a spiritual awakening of further understanding for her, speaking to the Grandmother, the large rock upon which she lay. She began in earnest the process of putting together a thesis which dealt with how Western and Indigenous peoples could assist each other by teaching each other their approaches to work. I have always said that Sandi was gracious in putting it both ways, because having worked in business, and taught it for years, I felt that most of the learning needed to be done by Westerners of the ways of the Indigenous worker, who has such a deeper understanding of how work must relate to life, how everything you do must be integrated, how integrity must reign in anything and everything you do.

The wonderful professors at Trent University’s Native Studies programme could never understand why I would drive all the way to Peterborough from Toronto any time we had a committee meeting for Sandi. I believe I eventually got them to realize that, compared to the relative coldness of York, if only by its huge size alone, (and it’s a burning fire compared to University of Toronto where I did my own doctoral work!), Trent was so warm, so welcoming, so inclusive, so nurturing, that it was a joy to serve on Sandi’s committee and watch her grow and mature. Besides, Trent was willing and eager to recognize my credentials for teaching PhD Business students, something that York has yet to do. Sandi was by now in her early 50s. She was always a mature student. Something that Sandi and I found amazing, and yet not surprising, was that every time I came to Trent, she and I ended up dressed in the same colours, similar clothing, as if we had called, girlfriend-style, and asked “What are you wearing?!”

At the end of June 2008, Sandi successfully defended her PhD thesis. On July 1, 2008, Sandi started work as an Assistant Professor tenure stream at Athabasca University, in their distance education programme. She had so much to give, and so much to do – all the wonderful things that she had, in typical PhD fashion, and typical Sandi fashion, wanted to include in her PhD but we as her committee convinced her that it would take her 12 years to finish if she included all she wanted to include. There will be lots of time after you graduate, we told her, to do all those wonderful studies you want to do.

In the summer/fall of 2008, Sandi and I were both diagnosed with breast cancer. We found humour in it, as we did in so many things, particularly when it meant survival. I had told her first, and she was reluctant to tell me that she too had been diagnosed, not wanting to appear to be playing one-upmanship! Here are two cartoons I concocted out of New Yorker cartoons (changing the caption) that expressed what we felt and sent to Sandi:  

Sandi and Louise


I’m sure you think your biopsy experience was the most difficult ever, Sandi, but just wait till I tell you mine!



Frankly, Louise, it was mildly amusing when you used to show up at my doctoral committee meetings in the same colours I was wearing, but to come down with breast cancer just because I am being tested for it, well, don’t you think you’re carrying this support thing a little too far?

Soon though, it was no longer funny, so there are no more cartoons. My cancer was taken care of with a mastectomy, no radiation, no chemotherapy, and I considered myself lucky. Sandi’s turned out to be not breast cancer, but lung cancer, although she never smoked, Stage IV. She had radiation to reduce the size of some of the worst tumours and buy her some time, but there was not much time predicted.

Here is a picture of Sandi and me that my husband took when she was in Toronto getting radiation treatments. As I look at it now as I insert it into this page, I realize for the first time that once again we are dressed much alike!


Sandi came one last time to speak to the Gender Issues class and there we shared both our stories with the class. I had told my class about my cancer and they were one of my greatest support systems throughout the ordeal. You can probably imagine the emotion in that classroom as Sandi spoke for the last time. After you have read the rest of the story, come back and click here to see/hear Sandi talking.

In mid-November 2008, Trent University, knowing that Sandi would not make it to the next convocation, held a special convocation just for her, with everyone including the Chancellor (Roberta Bondar, below left) and the President (below right), a full-fledged convocation. It was just 10 days after my mastectomy, and the only thing I asked my doctor when I went in on November 6 for my surgery was, “Can I be driven to Peterborough in ten days?” She said yes, of course, but I realized at that point that if she had said No, I was going anyway. Here is a picture from that convocation, a most strange mixture of elation and desperate loss as we saw all of Sandi’s work culminate in her graduation and as we realized how little time she had left.


I miss Sandi so much. Her beloved husband Spencer, misses her terribly. He and I still correspond by email, often when I have “seen Sandi” as she walks her year-long trek to “the other side”. Here is a note from me about a time Sandi came to be with me. You can read in it something of her nature, and the good humour that she spread everywhere.

Dear Spencer,

If you missed Sandi this afternoon, she was over at my place, helping me paint the trim on my new laundry room! You will read about this room in the Christmas letter I'll be sending you, because Sandi is mentioned in major ways in it. The contractors build walls but they don't paint. Usually I do the painting, but was unable to do the walls and ceiling because of my cancer surgery. Son Erik did it and I was most grateful, but I had decided to do the trim on the floors and doors. I thought it would be a quick job but it turned out to be longer and more tedious than I'd thought. At one point, Erik was laying down masking tape for me, and it suddenly occurred to me to tell him your story of Sandi, about how, like a whirlwind, or more likely a tornado, she would tackle all jobs, about your coming home one day to find she had torn the porch off, saying, "Well, I've done MY part"! Erik laughed and said that Sandi sure must have been something. He finished the tape and I started back painting, and suddenly the work just flew by and was finished in no time. I realized that Sandi had come to help me. So if you were missing her, that's where she was this afternoon.


Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to
see the campfires of gentle people.
(Garrison Keillor)

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© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.