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Visiting Aboriginal Elders

New project contributing to the Indigenization of Memorial

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.

By Laura Woodford

In early January, the School of Social Work and the Aboriginal Resource Office hosted a Celebration Feast with Saqamaw (Chief) Mi’sel Joe, of the Miawpukek First Nation, attended by faculty, staff and students.

Chief Joe also met with students at the Aboriginal Resource Office. As well, a group of faculty, staff and students gathered at the School of Social Work, where Inuit Elders Ellen Ford and Emma Reelis led the lighting of the Kullik lamp and shared their knowledge and stories.

These events are part of the Visiting Aboriginal Elders Pilot Project, co-created by Memorial’s School of Social Work and the Aboriginal Resource Office.

The project, which has been generously funded by the Undergraduate Student Services Fee Fund, will see Elders from Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit communities of Newfoundland and Labrador visiting Memorial’s St. John’s campus during the 2019 winter and fall terms. Elders will be on campus during different weeks of the term, one day at the School of Social Work and one day at the Aboriginal Resource Office.

The goal of the project is to provide outcome information that will help establish an ongoing Elders-in-Residence program for Memorial University.

Chief Mi’sel Joe visited the Aboriginal Resource Office and the School of Social Work recently.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Knowledge keepers

As teachers, healers, protectors and storytellers, Elders play a key role as knowledge keepers and facilitators of lifelong learning in Aboriginal communities. They hold a wealth of knowledge about ancestral language, culture and history of their people.

For undergraduate Aboriginal students at Memorial, engaging with an Elder on campus can provide opportunities to support personal and academic identity formation, as well as assist with integration, healing, support and leadership development.

“This is an incredible turning point for Memorial University in understanding the needs of Aboriginal students.” — Saqamaw (Chief) Mi’sel Joe

An Elder on campus can help foster culturally affirming learning environments for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, faculty and all members of the university community — thus providing a significant contribution towards the Indigenization of Memorial University.

“This is a new pilot project for Memorial University,” said Saqamaw (Chief) Mi’sel Joe. “There are many elders-in-residence at universities across the country. Although this is a pilot project, I hope this turns into a full-time program for Memorial, because it is so important for students to have that connection to their communities, cultures, languages.

“It’s also not one-sided,” he continued. “Elders learn from students. Elders learn from students what their needs are, and gain better insight into what they go through as students while attending university or any post-secondary institution. Elders can advise future students from their communities what to expect when they come to Memorial. This is an incredible turning point for Memorial University in understanding the needs of Aboriginal students.”

Each semester, approximately 180 undergraduate bachelor of social work (BSW) students could be involved and benefit from this initiative. Undergraduate students from other units of Memorial will also have the opportunity to participate through various events organized by the Aboriginal Resource Office.

‘Accept people for who they are’

“This project will help our young Aboriginal students coming to university today to feel more welcomed, more supported,” said Inuit Elder Emma Reelis. “And for non-Aboriginal students, it’s important for them to learn about our culture and have respect for themselves and for others. Aboriginal people have feelings, like everyone. Accept people for who they are.”

Elders Emma Reelis and Ellen Ford lighting the Kullik lamp on the St. John’s campus.
Photo: Submitted

Social Work commitment

As part of the School of Social Work’s response to the Call to Action on Education of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the school is committed to attracting and retaining Aboriginal applicants to the BSW programs.

Creating the Visiting Aboriginal Elders Pilot Project with the Aboriginal Resource Office is a significant step towards furthering the decolonization and Indigenization of the BSW curriculum and pedagogy, and transforming the university environment and the learning framework of Aboriginal education in the academy.

“It is important to share our culture and let people know about our traditions.” — Elder Ellen Ford

Project team members are Sheila O’Neill, co-ordinator, Aboriginal student success, Aboriginal Resource Office; Valeri Pilgrim, manager, Aboriginal Resource Office; Catharyn Andersen, special advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs; Lindsay Batt, BSW student, School of Social Work; Fred Andersen, faculty member, School of Social Work; Dr. Paul Banahene Adjei, faculty member, School of Social Work; and Dr. Heather J. Hair, associate dean, undergraduate programs, School of Social Work and team lead.

The presence of Elders on Memorial’s campus can create a dynamic difference in students’ education and introduce the university community to invaluable Aboriginal knowledge and traditions.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Inuit Elder Ellen Ford. “It is important to share our culture and let people know about our traditions. We are proud to be able to do this.”

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