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 generations.”
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 Indigenous nations.
“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.”