What to Expect from the Indigenous Fall Series

Post by Jaime Caldwell, coordinator, Marketing and Communications at BCcampus

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with the two very passionate and knowledgeable, facilitators of the upcoming Fall Indigenous Series – Pulling Together, a 6-week workshop series that begins October 1, 2020. Facilitators Marlene Erickson and Jewell Gilles both bring different skills and backgrounds to their work, but share a common vision for the sessions. Their hope is to create space for participants to come together and collaborate on the ways in which they can use their own spheres of influence to bring about transformative systemic change and provide more equitable post-secondary education for students of Indigenous heritage.

Introducing the Facilitators

Marlene Erickson grew up in Nak’azdli (also known as Fort St. James). She is the Executive Director of Aboriginal Education at the College of New Caledonia, where she has worked for over 25 years in various roles. She has served as director for the Yinka Dene Language Institute, and as a director, advisor, and chairperson for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. She is an executive board member of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), a policy and advocacy organization that represents and works on behalf of First Nations communities in British Columbia. Marlene also chairs the (post-secondary) BC Aboriginal Coordinators Council. With a strong interest in oral history, Marlene has been a long-time advocate for language and cultural revitalization.

Jewell Gillies is Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation (northern Vancouver Island). After completing 2 years of study toward a Criminal Justice Diploma at the University of the Fraser Valley, Jewell spent time as a police officer in Vancouver. However, after six years in law enforcement, Jewell had to accept that the uniform was a barrier to the goals they wanted to achieve, as it represented a disturbing history for those Jewell was trying to connect to and help. Jewell switched gears and began working in the educational system. Now, in their work in the Aboriginal Services Department of Okanagan College, Jewell is recognizing that they are in a better position to effect real change. They are also responsible for creating the Positive Space Committee for LGBTQ2+ students and staff at Okanagan College.

In relating their backgrounds, both Marlene and Jewell highlighted that, historically, institutions have made attempts at reconciliation by focusing on providing accommodations and support for Indigenous students to better “fit into” the educational system. But this asks far too much of the student, and nothing really of the system. Jewell explained it this way:

What we are currently doing is asking Indigenous students to walk in two very different worlds when they enter the post-secondary system. We’re asking them to walk with their traditional teachings, with the values and the expectations that their community has for them, while also walking in an entirely different system that supports the suppression of their identity and creates these natural deficits for them experiencing success. They are having to constantly manage these two experiences and find a common way that is the easiest for them.

Rather than this approach of transforming the student, we should instead turn our focus to transforming the system to be accessible to Indigenous students’ needs. In doing that, we make that the new standard for all students. And, they pointed out, what is great about systemic change is that it helps everyone. If we make things more equitable for Indigenous peoples, then we make things more equitable for all. 

Both facilitators acknowledge that part of why changes at the systemic level have been so difficult is that, while there are many people out there at different levels of government and in post-secondary roles doing really great work, they aren’t connected enough to each other to really transform the system. These linkages — this hard-wired interconnectedness — is what’s missing.

What can participants expect from this series, and why is it portrayed as a journey?

This series requires a commitment of three hours of asynchronous study/self-reflection, along with one 90-minute synchronous session every Thursday for six weeks. It’s definitely not a drop-in series that you participate in whilst catching up on email. Themes to guide the conversation are taken from the four modules within Pulling Together: A Guide for Leaders and Administrators:

  • Chetwood (the Bear) — One’s intentions and values. How did we get to be here today? 
  • Kahkah (the Raven) — The determination to paddle. This is where we look at what we need to do to be successful in our journey.
  • Leloo (the Wolf) — The one who gathers the community. This theme speaks to the participant’s willingness to be on this journey and make these changes.
  • Sammon (the Salmon) — The wealth that we bring home from our journey. 

There is a hands-on component as well, which is covered by the $25 registration fee. Each participant will be mailed their own medicine pouch kit and instructed on how to assemble it during one of the synchronous sessions. This communal activity is a unique aspect of the series and provides a way for the participant to hold space for themselves and their own self-care during the workshop.

By no means will one be an expert on Indigenous history, culture, or reconciliation after participating in this series — but the facilitators reassure that none of us currently are or can be. For one thing, there are too many different Indigenous groups and diverse representations of Indigenous peoples across our province and our country. Additionally, Jewell pointed out that the work of creating equity for any equity-seeking group is always going to be in progress. In reality, we will never be finished, so this is why we focus on the journey.

Picking Up the Paddle

Marlene and Jewell emphasized that the journey toward equity requires collaboration. It involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples coming together with reciprocal respect and humility, picking up the paddle, and embarking as a collective on a journey of learning together. It involves recognizing the truth of our histories and recognizing the responsibility each of us have to make things right.

If you look at the front cover of the Pulling Together Guides, it’s right there in the title and in the artwork. Jewell, of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation (northern Vancouver Island), had this to say:

We traditionally have travelled in canoes on all the different waterways within our territories, and a lot of what we talk about when we embark on our canoe trips, even today, is never about where are we going: we talk about what do we want to experience while we travel. A lot of our traditional songs, our paddle songs, speak about the experience of community, the relationship building, the teamwork through the journey. It’s not about “I just want to get over here.”

My hope for reconciliation is not just me supporting our Indigenous community to embolden themselves … to accept and ask, in as respectful a way as we can, for that equitable access, but it’s also building that relationship with other non-Indigenous folks: building them into true allies, so that they help us dismantle those systems that create that deficit for people.

The series will be drawing from Pulling Together: A Guide for Leaders and Administrators, but that doesn’t mean that this series is only for those in executive positions at institutions. These sessions are for anyone and everyone working in the post-secondary field, for those ready to become leaders within their sphere of influence.

Notable Quotes

“The hope is that participants go back to their networks with what they’ve learned, with the new ideas, the experiences they’ve had in this journey, and hopefully recruit more allies within their institutions to support directly, as well as with a better idea of what they’re hoping to change systemically.”

— Jewell Gillies, Aboriginal Services Department, Okanagan College 

“We want to really draw people’s hearts and minds into a conversation, a dialogue. It’s about getting curious. We all have a unique knowledge set that we bring with us to the table. Collectively, we bring that knowledge together, and it’s only together that we can make the changes that are necessary.”

—Marlene Erickson, executive director of Aboriginal education, College of New Caledonia

If you’re ready to climb aboard the canoe, join us on our journey in the Fall Indigenous Series – Pulling Together. Registration closes September 18 and costs $25. The series runs from October 1 to November 5.