There is a new Vancouver Island emerging, a more cosmopolitan Vancouver Island of educated working professionals drawn to a West Coast lifestyle at an affordable price.
And a major catalyst for this is Vancouver Island University.
After opening our three-part series on the impact the university is having on the social and economic landscape of the community with a look at the international student program, Black Press today explores its relationship with Vancouver Island’s First Nations.
PART II: The First Nations student
The confines of insularity — Eunice Joe remembers them well.
She also remembers being a young mother with a desire to help herself and her community, and her struggle to conjure the courage to step past her fear of what was beyond the boundaries of her small world.
Joe recalls these things through the lens of more than a decade, from her comfortable seat as Vancouver Island manager for the First Nations Health Authority.
Her journey from the Tseshaht reserve outside Port Alberni to being responsible for meeting the health and wellness needs for not only her band, but 50 Vancouver Island First Nations is one most people would be proud of accomplishing.
It’s also one that she readily acknowledges would not have happened without Vancouver Island University.
It’s not a long journey over the hump from Alberni to Nanaimo, but for a younger Joe, it was a road to a different universe. Without VIU’s aboriginal support services and welcoming environment, she said loneliness and culture shock may have prevented her from obtaining her degree.
“That program was very supportive. It was my first time being that far from home,” she said. “Having an elder present helped me. Having that cultural piece was very comforting to me. Having an elder there — I don’t think I would have made it without them. It helped me get through.”
It wasn’t by accident that VIU worked for Joe, or is working for the more than 2,000 full- and part-time indigenous students — nearly one-fifth of the student body — currently attending the institution.
Under the guidance of president Ralph Nilson, the school has deliberately reached out to each of Vancouver Island’s three indigenous ethnic groups — the Coast Salish of the southeast, the Kwakwaka’wakw of the northeast and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth of the west coast.
The university basically said: ‘You have so much knowledge about history, geography, language, the environment and so much more, we would be so grateful if you could share.’ The gesture of respect opened doors.
“We are saying ‘we can learn from you.’ It is a reciprocal arrangement,” Nilson said. “Truth and respect can only happen if we spend time together.”
The most prominent manifestation is the recognition of nine First Nations elders as faculty members at both the Nanaimo and Cowichan campuses. They help teach and guide courses and provide knowledge, support and perspective — not only to young Aboriginal students, but all students and teachers.
Gary Manson of the Snuneymuxw has been a VIU elder-in-residence for the past few years. He appreciates what Nilson is trying to accomplish and sees his role as providing perspective on culture and history to the curriculum, comfort to students and guidance to the teaching staff.
“Young people are starting to embrace our culture but the residential schools have done their job,” he said. “I tell (today’s teachers) you are in a position to encourage an Aboriginal person to succeed.”
Morgan Mowatt said the presence of the elders makes a real difference.
Mowatt, who is taking political science and Aboriginal studies courses at VIU, is of Gitxsan and Scandinavian background. She grew up in Lantzville.
She said for herself, the elders have helped forge a connection to her Aboriginal heritage. For some of her classmates, the elders have given them a reason to think that university is a place where they belong.
”It’s useful to validate indigenous knowledge. People from remote communities see that,” she said. “People can go back to their communities and feel validated.”
Mowatt volunteers as a “Community Cousin” a group of student mentors working to help Aboriginal students feel comfortable on campus. The university also has a large Aboriginal student services department to support a healthy school/life balance. And then there is Shq’apthut — A Gathering Place, the First Nations student centre where this all comes together.
VIU offers full-ride scholarships to the top two students in each of the Island’s three Aboriginal language groups. It is also the first university out of the gate to provide tuition to anyone coming out of foster care. Nilson said this is particularly relevant because even though First Nations people comprise four per cent B.C.’s population, they also comprise 64 per cent of the people in care.
“It’s clear evidence of the impact of the residential schools,” he said.
Joe pointed to a single incident that she feels illustrates the VIU approach.
It was a student mother’s worst nightmare: final exams and no daycare. Her kids were about one and six, and in tow as she approached her teacher near tears. Instead of eye-rolling or cold rejection, staff created a space for her in a side room. She wrote her exam while her younger daughter napped and her sister entertained herself by drawing.
“That experience really stands out today,” she said.
Now, Joe is helping the students following in her footsteps by advising VIU on First Nations wellness philosophies and how to incorporate them into the learning environment.
Nilson said the intent is simply that the university does what it can to help Aboriginal students succeed.
Mowatt wants to walk in those footsteps.
“It has a huge influence,” she said. “It’s really inspiring, actually. I’d like to bring that to a new generation of students.”
She said the young people currently emerging as Aboriginal leaders have had a far different school experience than their parents.
Joe — also an elected Tseshaht band councillor — watches former university classmates returning to their communities as teachers or political leaders, and inspiring their children. She sees the network of personal connections created at the university feeding a network of community connections up and down the Island, leading to new strength built on cooperation and numbers.
“When I was going through my education I questioned why and how we could be working together,” she said. “Now we are collaborating together.”
It’s a far cry from the days of residential schools, when education for First Nations people was a trial to be endured and rarely spoken about.
“It’s been a long time building trust,” Nilson said. “Education has been used as a tool of oppression. Now it is a tool of hope.”
Mowatt suggested the university is a way of opening indigenous people’s eyes to other worlds while giving them a new appreciation of their own.
“My parents didn’t attend university and (VIU) helped validate everything they taught me,” she said.
“I also enjoyed having everything turned on its head.”
Manson is confident the work being done at the university — which builds on the themes of truth and reconciliation — is making a difference.
“There’s a lot of work to do. One hundred years of suppression is not going disappear overnight. There’s anger on the Aboriginal side and guilt on the other side,” he said. “We can’t be angry forever. Nobody is going away.”
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