SIAST honours aboriginal student success

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Matt Gardner
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Keynote speaker Colleen Charles delivers her address to students at the 2014 Aboriginal Honour Ceremony hosted by the SIAST Aboriginal Student Achievement Plan and the SIAST Woodland Campus Aboriginal Activity Centre.

SIAST Woodland Campus recognized the success of its aboriginal students on Wednesday at the school’s 2014 aboriginal honour ceremony.

Hosted by the SIAST Aboriginal Student Achievement Plan and the SIAST Woodland Campus Aboriginal Activity Centre, the annual event serves as an opportunity to congratulate the students on their success while celebrating aboriginal culture and the youth of the future.

“It’s similar to a graduation, but the students don’t actually have to be graduating from their program,” aboriginal student advisor Jennifer Davies said.

“They can be … students that have completed their first year in a two-year program or students that are extending their program … Their program may only be a year long, but they have dropped some classes and extended their programs so that the course load isn’t so heavy or something like that.”

“Tonight is about honouring their success … They’ve made it through a year,” she added. “Most of our students have quite a few barriers that they are facing. They have children at home, some of them have left their children back at their other communities to come to school.

“Maybe they’ve been out of school for many years and have now come back to school … They have a lot of challenges that they’ve overcome and so this is a really big accomplishment for them.”

Wednesday’s ceremony honoured graduates from 15 programs and their families.

Attendance is free at the aboriginal honour ceremony and there is no limit to the amount of guests the students may bring.

The addition of a free meal makes for a comparatively family-friendly occasion.

“That’s the kind of thing that they’ve been having to balance all year, so it stands to reason (students) want to celebrate with their families,” Davies said.

Aside from entertainment provided by the Riverside School Dance Troop, the ceremony featured a number of speakers.

The keynote speaker of the evening was SIAST graduate Colleen Charles, a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band who completed her master’s degree in foundations last year at the University of Saskatchewan.

“She was a successful past SIAST grad that’s done well for herself … We thought she would be a good role model to speak to the rest of the students that are here tonight,” Davies said.

As the first president and founding member of the Woodland Tawow Aboriginal Student Committee, Charles played a major role in helping the school embrace aboriginal culture.

“When I first came here, I said, ‘We should really do something for these aboriginal students,’ and I really appreciate the fact that this aboriginal honour ceremony has been going on since I left,” she told the audience.

“I wanted to recognize aboriginal students, not just the big SIAST (ceremony) with everybody else graduating. I said, ‘We need to acknowledge aboriginal students in our own ceremony and in our own space where it’s a sense of belonging.’”

When Charles graduated high school in 1987, she was the first member of her family on both her mother and father’s side to do so.

Feeling it was important that aboriginal people should teach native studies programs, Charles went on to earn her B.A. in indigenous studies and a diploma in aboriginal human justice and in the Recreation and Leisure Management program.

But in order to teach indigenous studies at the university level, she still needed to earn her master’s degree -- a task she persevered in despite numerous obstacles along the way.

“I moved to Saskatoon for four months and one of my brothers passed away,” she recalled. “I decided family’s very important, so I went back home and every week for two and a half years, I travelled from La Ronge to Saskatoon to complete my master’s program, and it was very time-consuming. It was very overwhelming at times.”

Within that time frame, Charles landed a position teaching Indigenous Studies 100 and 201 at NORTEP/NORPAC for three semesters and later taught restorative justice to first-year correctional students at SIAST, which she described as a great learning experience.

But at the time she earned her master’s degree last June, her living situation still left much to be desired.

“At the time when I was going back and forth and teaching and going to school and working full-time, I was actually homeless,” Charles said.

Most of our students have quite a few barriers that they are facing. Jennifer Davies

“When I finished my master’s, I was still homeless … My friend said to me, ‘You’re the most educated person I know and you’re homeless.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. How does that happen?’”

Resolving to find a job, Charles spent every day for the next three to four months looking for employment.

In the fall of 2013, she landed a job as an Indigenous Voices Program Co-ordinator with the Gwenna Moss Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I’ve been there since September and it’s great … It’s a faculty unit and staff where we are teaching the higher-ups on campus regarding the historical and contemporary issues that aboriginal peoples face today, so that they can indigenize and de-colonize the institution,” Charles said.

“We had an opportunity to do a session and I did a workshop for senior leaders and the U of S president herself a couple weeks ago, which was very exciting.”

For its part, SIAST is nearly 10 years into its own concerted effort to “indigenize and de-colonize” the school, as related by special advisor to SIAST Myrna Yuzicapi.

Describing the history of aboriginal people at SIAST, Yuzicapi noted that while the school has existed in its present form for 25 years, it was only a decade ago, when Dr. Robert McCulloch became president, that “SIAST started to take seriously our responsibility as a public institution to provide good services and good supports and good education for everyone, including aboriginal students.”

“Under his leadership, we started some new things,” Yuzicapi added. “We created the SIAST Aboriginal Council, which was a collection of people from all four of our campuses and their role was to provide some leadership and direction about the services and the program changes and sort of the policy changes that needed to take place to be a more aboriginal-friendly place for everyone.”

A symbolic representation of the school’s commitment to aboriginal students was the creation of a sacred bundle containing items representing values such as education, family and community.

Noting the progress that has been made on aboriginal student issues over the years, Yuzicapi told her audience, “Seeing you here with your families to celebrate your achievements is really one of the best rewards that those of us who work for SIAST can have.”

Delivering her message to students, Aboriginal Activity Centre counsellor Ivy Bell noted the role of the centre in passing on traditional aboriginal teachings.

“I think why the Aboriginal Activity Centre’s important is that some of us didn’t grow up with those teachings and when we don’t, we get lost between two worlds,” Bell said.

“We don’t know who we are, and we don’t have that strong sense of identity. We don’t have a strong sense of belonging or of purpose. So this is why I’m so happy to be part of that.”

Meanwhile, Basic Education student April Abraham had her own message for her peers, whom she congratulated for their success in overcoming potential barriers to higher education.

“I know what it is like to be a student with the struggles of many obstacles that try to block our way,” Abraham said. “We’re all here for our own reasons no matter what our goal is, big or small.”

“Today I’m privileged to know many of the students that achieved so much … They kept on their path and overcame the challenges by taking the first step of returning to school,” she added. “It does take a lot of courage, hard work and faith in yourself.”

Besides welcoming remarks from aboriginal student advisor Shelly Belhumeur, the ceremony also included an opening prayer from Elder Rose Bird, closing remarks and a prayer by Elder Stewart Amyotte and an honour song by singer/drummer Trevor Amyotte.

A round dance song closed out the evening.

This article was updated on Thursday at 10:10 p.m. from a previous version.

Organizations: SIAST Woodland Campus Aboriginal Activity Centre, University of Saskatchewan, Riverside School Dance Troop Lac La Ronge Indian Band Woodland Tawow Aboriginal Student Committee Leisure Management Indigenous Studies 100 NORTEP/NORPAC Gwenna Moss Centre SIAST Aboriginal Council

Geographic location: Saskatoon, La Ronge

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