One of the primary
strengths of Indigenous Institutes is their community-based approach rooted in
language and culture.
That’s the central
message shared by students from across Ontario who participated in the Our
Community, Our Choice conference hosted by the Indigenous Advanced Education
and Skills Council (IAESC).
“It feels really good to
come back to who we are,” said Tracey Whiteye, of the Moravian of the Thames,
who is in the Bachelor of Social Welfare program with First Nations Technical
Institute (FNTI). “Education is power, you know, for us and for our future
There were 21 student representatives
from seven Institutes involved in the two-day event held at the Evergreen Brick
Works and Westin Prince Hotel in Toronto February 6-7.
They came from the four
directions to share what they value now, what they see as essential to
high-quality Indigenous education and what they would like to see happen in the
future. Some are just starting their programs and others are about to graduate
through Kenjgewin Teg, based out of M’Chigeeeng on Manitoulin Island, Seven Generations
Education Institute serving the Rainy River and Kenora regions, Six Nations
Polytechnic (Ohsweken, Brantford, also known as SNP), Oshki Pimache-o-win: The Wenjack Education
Institute at Thunder Bay, and FNTI based in Tyendinaga while delivering education
in various locations.
Most of the students are
studying their Indigenous language as their program of choice, saying it’s
vital to their identity and understanding of the world around them. They
mentioned the desire for a day when they could re-convene and speak only in
their languages with each other.
With 2019 being the
International Year of Indigenous Languages as declared by the United Nations,
and the federal government tabling legislation on February 5th to
recognize Indigenous language as a constitutionally guaranteed right, there are
significant implications and opportunities for language students and all
students of Indigenous Institutes.
Curtis Fox, of
Wikwemikong, studying business at Kenjgewin Teg, appreciates the benefits of
learning within an Indigenous setting.
“I just feel that’s
really important for anybody who is struggling, trying to move forward in their
life, that they see there is a place for them,” Fox said, describing how you
can feel and see the “vibrant community within” such schools compared to the
isolation students may experience in non-Indigenous settings.
Several said it was an
honour to be part of charting the path forward for Indigenous education, with
IAESC’s mandate to set quality assurance standards followed by its Quality
Assessment Board while reviewing each organization and program.
Noodin Niimebin Shawanda,
an Anishnaabe Studies student at Shingwauk said there is a long way to go
before postsecondary education and training is completely controlled by the
“One thing I want to see
is full control of Indian education,” he said, noting some people think it is
there is already, but that’s not true. “Where it stands today … we don’t have
full control, it seems like it … but the way I see it, we can’t develop our own
curriculum. We have all these hoops we have to jump through.”
Shawanda said doing
things in parallel with the mainstream doesn’t do enough.
“We can come up with our
own understanding of what it means to be Anishinabe … and all these other
tribes. That would make it easier to gain what we’ve been talking about these
last couple of days,” he said.
And there was talk
amongst students about how they could continue the momentum established at the
conference with suggestions about forming a student association of their own.
Connie John of Oshweken,
seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mohawk studies through SNP, said she experienced many
positives from the conference.
“I am bringing home hope
and I’m going home with enlightenment,” she said at the closing dinner.
Laurie Robinson, IAESC
chairwoman and executive director, told the students there is a lot of work to
do and this was a good place to start the process.
“I felt it was really
important to gather learners, a diverse group of learners of Indigenous
Institutes … everybody has something to give because this community represents
the community this Council has to try and serve.”
Robinson said the values
and suggestions shared by the students will be compiled in a report and will
inform the work of IAESC.
“Here’s what the
students of today are saying: They all want their communities to be better.
They are working hard to make themselves better by establishing their own
identities, they are working to make a difference for future generations. These
are their goals and our principles, our standards have to reflect that.”
Robinson said the
process for setting the standards and implementing them is in the early stages.
“I can only do this with
your help … and we’re on a good path.”