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‘We are strong’

How one student embraced her Aboriginal culture at Grenfell Campus

special feature: Indigenization

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 Bethany Bernier

I was fortunate to come from a small Mi’kmaw community where I was exposed to my culture from an early age.

Transitioning to university could be seen as a challenge for many but luckily I entered Grenfell Campus as it was increasing its work toward Indigenization. A strong group of students was running the Indigenous Student Caucus, which allowed a safe space for discussion.

In addition, the support system provided through the Aboriginal affairs officer at Grenfell allowed for help with Indigenous programming, research and learning.

While an eager participant in these discussions, I also unknowingly became the leader of discussions in the classroom. Professors in Canada are not properly educated on effective steps to Indigenize curriculum, and as a result, it often falls on Indigenous students to discuss Indigenous issues.

Bethany Bernier and Mi’kmaw Elder Dr. Calvin White.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

This approach can be problematic when Indigenous students do not feel confident enough to speak (especially about groups outside their own) while at the same time feeling that if they do not speak, no one will.

I became the student who always addressed Indigenous issues and presented Indigenous ideologies, but this can become tiring and hinder the student’s learning process.

As a student leader, I joined Grenfell’s Indigenous Initiatives Committee and facilitated the Blanket Exercise.

“We are not vulnerable. We are strong Indigenous students.” — Bethany Bernier

What I found in these experiences is that these conversations, committees and exercises often allowed for others to place their settlers’ guilt at the forefront of the discussion rather than centering Indigenous perspectives, exemplifying the very complicated processes that are Indigenization and Reconciliation.

It also highlights that Indigenous students wear many different hats in the university that often go unrecognized, and that although supports are there from the Aboriginal affairs officer, resources are stretched with only one position at Grenfell, increasing the share of the work of Indigenization that Indigenous students do.

‘Unique perspective’

Reflecting on my time at Grenfell Campus, I recall a document published by the university administration that identified Indigenous students as being one of the “vulnerable” groups at the university.

We are not vulnerable.

Bethany Bernier and Janice Galliot during a Blanket Exercise.
Photo: Submitted

We are strong Indigenous students who are able to bring a unique perspective, merging a Westernized view alongside Indigenous ideologies. We are equipped to bring something to the table that others cannot.

This is not vulnerability, and by Memorial University fostering the education of Indigenous students, it is a sign of excellence for the university.

Despite the hurdles I experienced, I was successful in my studies, received various honours for my contributions to Grenfell Campus and was recognized at the national level for my leadership.

Having moved on to graduate studies at Queen’s University, I look back at my time with Memorial University and can confidently report that Memorial is on a good path towards Indigenizing the university and providing the proper support for students to excel.

There are still many steps to take, but an Elder once told me everything takes seven generations.

We must push for change, but also take the time to reflect on how far we have come.

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