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Kelly Anne Butler

A Q&A with Grenfell Campus’s Aboriginal student affairs officer

Part of a special feature celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in N.L. and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. This theme coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week 2017: Building Reconciliation taking place at Memorial from March 20-24.

By Melanie Callahan

Kelly Anne Butler is the student affairs officer, Aboriginal affairs, at Grenfell Campus.

She also holds the position of adjunct professor with the humanities program and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan.

Kelly Anne Butler
Kelly Anne Butler
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

In addition to her role at Grenfell, she is actively engaged with her own local Mi’kmaw community and works on committees such as the Bay St. George Mi’kmaq Cultural Revival Committee, which plans and executes the Bay St. George Powwow in Flat Bay, N.L., each July.

Here, she chats with Gazette contributor, Melanie Callahan.

MC: Where are you from? Can you tell me a little about your education?

KB: My mom is from a Mi’kmaw community on Bay St. George. My brother and I grew up moving around because my dad was in the military, but we returned to St. George’s regularly throughout my life and have always considered it to be home.

Because of all the moving around, I was fortunate to learn by living — living in various communities in Canada and the U.S. — and I was able to learn from a variety of different Indigenous groups across North America, depending on where we were living at the time. I enjoyed sharing my heritage with kids from other Indigenous backgrounds. Ultimately, this fuelled my academic interests as well, studying Indigenous Peoples in comparative contexts across the Americas.

MC: What is your research focus? How are you applying that research to your work at Grenfell Campus?

KB: My broad focus is on Indigenous approaches to colonialism — in practical terms, how Indigenous Peoples, either individually or as communities, navigate through systems and structures that are not ordered for them.

How do they counter or subvert the dominant narrative and create their own space, both ideologically and physically? How much energy must be expended in these efforts when a person doesn’t “fit” into mainstream ways of being and knowing? More narrowly, I’ve studied this through research on Indigenous Peoples and their approaches to Catholicism and other forms of imposed ideologies.

MC: How does this research apply to your work here at Grenfell?

KB: I work with students and community members who often have to do that sort of navigating through university systems and structures. When people hear or read about the concept of “Indigenization,” part of that process is to effect change within the institution rather than having Indigenous Peoples making the accommodations.

MC: What initiatives or programs have you been involved with? What initiatives makes you most proud?

KB: The Wampum Belt Project, a piece of art representing Mi’kmaq imagery, has connected so many people from so many communities and will exist as a record of that collaboration as well as a history of how we are all connected in this province.

I have two initiatives in the infancy stage including the Kekina’mut Indigenous Peer Liaison program. Kekina’mut (pronounced geh-ghee-NAH-mud) is a Mi’kmaw word that means a person is being taught. The idea is that in Indigenous ways of knowing, teaching often comes to us from everyday exchanges rather than formalized, planned teaching sessions. With this in mind, the Kekina’mut Indigenous Peer Liaison Program differs from mainstream peer mentor programs. For many Indigenous Peoples, that mentor-type relationship is one that would organically grow from an informal set of exchanges, and so the peer liaisons in this program will maintain hours in the Aboriginal Student Centre here at Grenfell where students engage in informal conversation and co-operation.

The second new initiative is a course that I will be teaching in the fall of 2017, Humanities 3100 Contemporary Indigenous Ideas: Personal Narrative. This is a creative experiment in moving the “classroom” around to a variety of Indigenous communities as well as the university. The course will meet one night per week, simultaneously at multiple locations that are streamed together.  This will enable more people access to the university and will hopefully bring mainstream university students into conversation with Indigenous Peoples and communities. Some community members may wish to participate for personal enrichment, and they will be welcome to do so.

MC: This has certainly been interesting times for the Qalipu First Nation. How has both the development of the band and the recent changes to its membership impacted the students here?

KB: This is an interesting question and several books could be written on it — and probably will!

The history of the enrolment process really sheds light on the power of federal recognition, both positive and negative. The Federation of Newfoundland Indians has been around for almost half a century, but the west coast of the island, for most of that time, had not been allocated too many resources for cultivating the histories of communities, or for funding support systems for Mi’kmaw people. Until recently, it was largely up to motivated individuals and communities to pursue initiatives that celebrate Mi’kmaw history and culture.

The creation of Qalipu First Nation as a federally-recognized Indian Act band has brought a sort of official stamp of approval that sets in motion a variety of other possibilities, many related to funding and resources. That part is great. But the enrolment process has been flawed from the start and has had so many delays that we are now almost a decade into the process and have seen thousands of people granted status and now, years later, more than 10,000 people notified that their status will be revoked.

The biggest impact is the feeling of insecurity in what is happening or might happen. Contrary to what is popularly believed, Indigenous students do not get a “free ride,” but those with status under the Indian Act do have access to federal education funds. The fear of all of a sudden having no funding plan right in the middle of your program, which is what has happened to some students here, can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.

In my role, I can help to mitigate the insecurity by offering other alternatives, by educating students about what this current process means for them and by helping them navigate through new avenues for funding their higher education.

MC: What do you think lies ahead for Aboriginal student services at Grenfell?

KB: The thing about my job here is that if I do it well, I create more work for myself! There was a great deal of wonderful work already underway when I arrived here — the Aboriginal Student Centre is a wonderful example of that. But there is also far to go, and Grenfell Campus has a great deal of untapped potential in that regard.

Looking ahead, I see the Aboriginal student services profile growing organically, and that is a good thing for Grenfell as well as for Indigenous communities in the province. The possibilities are too many to list, but I foresee continued growth as Grenfell moves forward with Indigenization efforts and more Indigenous programming.

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