By Amy Robertson
riercrest College and Seminary has taken another step on the path to reconciliation with our province’s First Nations and Métis peoples.
For the first time, the educational institution has hired a First Nations and Métis coordinator to work with Aboriginal students.
Johannah Bird, 22, a First Nations woman from the Peguis First Nation near Portage la Prarie, Man., assumed her responsibilities in early September 2010. Bird graduated with honours from Briercrest in April 2010, and Briercrest administrators offered her the position over the summer.
“Johannah understands and embodies our mission in all sorts of important ways,” Dr. Wesley Olmstead, Briercrest’s vice president academic, said.
Bird will act as an advocate and go-to person for all First Nations and Métis students on campus and provide academic, social, and spiritual support. She will liaise between Briercrest and First Nations students’ bands, communicating about matters like funding and establishing important relationships. She will also help guide Briercrest’s work with First Nations peoples into the future.
Laura Trapper, a First Nations Briercrest alumna, said with a laugh that “it’s about time” the school hired someone to work with First Nations and Métis students.
Trapper, who is from Waskaganish, Que., said that when she began studying counselling at Briercrest three years ago, she “encountered racism.” After education on her reserve, she also found it challenging to be in a classroom full of non-Native students who didn’t understand her cultural background.
First Nations students come from a reserve into an environment that’s “totally different,” Trapper said.
She offered an example: “In our culture, to look into someone’s eyes, we consider that rude. We tend to look down or not look at the person just out of respect.”
This act of respect has the potential to be misunderstood and cause social problems among people groups who do not understand First Nations culture.
“Some [First Nations students] will shut down,” Trapper said. “There’s no one to ask for help. They want to talk to someone who understands.” Trapper is relieved that Bird will act as an advocate for students in situations like her son’s: Tyrone Trapper, a freshman at Briercrest, is one of many First Nations students who struggle with funding for private post-secondary education.
For now, Tyrone is pursuing other funding options through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. He hopes Bird will help resolve the funding issue with his band by next semester, but plans to continue his studies at Briercrest even if he needs to use student loans to pay for it.
“I’m still going to come here no matter what,” he said. “I’m going to keep pursuing what (God) wants me to do.”
The 19-year-old plans to pursue a BA in Youth Ministry. “I really have a heart for Aboriginal youth,” he said. “Back on my reserve, there (were) many suicides.”
For Dr. Dwayne Uglem, Briercrest’s president, in light of the high concentration of Aboriginal people in Saskatchewan, a First Nations coordinator is a “logical, important next step,” he said.
There are more First Nations peoples in Saskatchewan and Manitoba per capita than any other Canadian province, accounting for nearly 14 per cent of the provinces’ populations.
“Briercrest has to change,” Uglem said. “It is just wrong for us to be in Saskatchewan and not be very intentional about how we seek to walk with our First Nations brothers and sisters.”
Uglem said that Briercrest first had the opportunity to serve a group of First Nations youth in the 1970s, and many had a wonderful experience. But for a few others, it was “awful,” he said—and things haven’t changed as much as he would expect or hope.
“We have not had a right perspective. We’ve been ignorant and prejudicial,” he said, citing negative attitudes toward First Nations’ educational funding as an example.
Some Canadians believe their funding is “an ill-founded tax perk,” he said. “We make all sorts of hurtful comments about that. We demand they justify it—but we don’t justify why we sit on their land.”
Briercrest College and Seminary’s campus is located on First Nations Treaty 4 land, which occupies most of southern Saskatchewan and part of western Manitoba and southeastern Alberta.
“We need to tell these stories because white Canadians don’t understand,” Uglem said.
Dr. Olmstead affirms the potential need for academic help for First Nations students, acknowledging that many students who have been educated in First Nations contexts may have unique learning styles. He suggested that First Nations’ learning is “very tied to narrative,” and said some students might initially have trouble learning to think and learn in ways they haven’t before.
He also acknowledged that many First Nations youth have difficulty completing high school and do not attend college. But both he and Dr. Brian Gobbett, a history professor at Briercrest who has taken the lead in the First Nations and Métis coordinator project, understand that the need goes far beyond academics.
“It’s academic mentorship in some cases—but it’s more than that,” Gobbett said.
Gobbett believes confessional schools like Briercrest have a particular responsibility to serve First Nations peoples. He points to the Christian church’s historical abuse of First Nations peoples in residential schools in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
He hopes Bird will help the institution take “a posture of forgiveness and learning” as it begins to partner with First Nations peoples throughout Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada.
“The church has damaged the Aboriginal community in ways that it hasn’t damaged other communities,” he said.
“Some (students) bring particularly difficult backgrounds.”
“It’s not that we need to get them to class on time, it’s that (we want to say,) ‘your culture is vital to the history of this land—you’re a part of this.’”
Olmstead agrees. “First Nations people have a particularly important place in Canada—in particular in Saskatchewan,” he said.
“We would certainly like to be in a place where we’re an attractive option for First Nations students.”
Bird believes she’s up to the challenge, describing the “great honour” of being asked to take the job. She said she is “excited” about the position and “being part of what this school is hoping to accomplish.”
“I want to help in any way I can.”
Briercrest’s administration has been working to establish partnerships with First Nations peoples in Saskatchewan for more than five years. Bird’s new position is the fourth step in the process.
In 2007, a group from Briercrest visited four different indigenous communities with historical ties to the schools in order to dialogue with and listen to First Nations leaders, build relationships with First Nations peoples, and educate key Briercrest faculty and administrators.
Briercrest hosted a conference on campus later that year called Re-visioning Relationships in order to educate faculty and students about First Nations educational issues in Saskatchewan and encourage dialogue. Several First Nations leaders and experts were invited to speak at a forum and round-table discussion.
In 2008, with the financial support of the Bridgeway Foundation, Briercrest commissioned Dr. Jacqueline Ottman, a professor at the University of Calgary and one of the leading Aboriginal academics in Canada, to write a report on the conference and examine the feasibility of establishing a Centre for First Nations Studies on campus. Hiring a First Nations and Métis coordinator was one of Ottman’s recommendations.
Bird’s position is funded until May 2011 through a Stronger Together 2010 grant. Stronger Together is a consortium of Christian foundations that have joined to fund various projects that build organizational strength through B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Granting partners that contributed to Briercrest’s project include the Bridgeway Foundation, John & Rebecca Horwood, and the Legacy Foundation.