Building Relationships on Anishinaabe Territory: Community and University Working in Partnership

March 27, 2015 10:27 am

Above: Dr. Katrina Srigley

Centuries-old land claim disputes. Armed standoffs. Treaty agreements marred by deceit. Terror, abuse and confinement. The history of the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is fraught with mistrust, misunderstanding and multiple challenges. That’s no way to build a future.

But there is hope. There is a way forward. We can and must work to rebuild integrity, renew trust and strengthen our collective relationship.

When people build positive relationships with one another, when they establish trust and respect, their ability to define and work towards common goals increases dramatically. Through mutual understanding, what once seemed insurmountable can seem possible. For Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to work together on Turtle Island (North America) to advance their needs collectively and individually, good working relationships are essential, and it starts with understanding.

On the traditional territory of Nipissing First Nation, Dr. Katrina Srigley is working in partnership with Anishinaabe and Ininiw community members to change the stories we tell about our pasts. Together they are exploring the dynamics of memory making and storytelling through decolonized research practice. Her current Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project, developed with Nipissing First Nation: Nbisiing Anishinabeg Biimadiziwin: to understand the past and shape the future mobilizes Anishinaabe stories and understandings of the past. She is co-authoring a book with Glenna Beaucage, the Cultural Planning Coordinator for Nipissing First Nation, titled Gaa-Bii Kidwaad The Story of Nipissing. In partnership with the North Bay Friendship Centre, Srigley is also working with Indigenous storytelling methodologies in an exploration of the history of homelessness, poverty and migration in northeastern Ontario. This work informed the provincially-mandated ten-year housing planning for the District of Nipissing and is highlighted in the Friendship Centre’s publication, Following the Red Road.

This innovative and partnership-rich research is changing the way history is taught in high school and university classrooms, honouring Indigenous perspectives and histories to the benefit of all. Working with Nipissing First Nation and local high school teachers, Srigley is developing high school curriculum units. Two recent units tell the story of the Nipissing Warriors Hockey Team, a famed and highly successful Anishinaabe team from the 1960s and 1970s. The units are framed by Anishnaabe ways of understanding the world. They forefront the expertise of Elders and introduce students to silenced narratives of their pasts, of community cohesion and success. Through this work Srigley, an associate professor of History at Nipissing University, has developed the trust necessary to involve Elders in her university classrooms, an approach described as “innovative” and “pathbreaking” by community leaders. In Srigley’s classrooms, students are introduced to key concepts and approaches to the study of history from different intellectual traditions, those traditional to the Anishinaabe land on which the university sits and European theories of knowledge and history, which frame the discipline. This is achieved in various ways, but particularly through collaborative teaching with Elders and community members.

“These relationships already exist. People are working together in a good way setting goals and making change,” says Srigley. “Sharing knowledge and honouring Indigenous understandings of the past builds empathy and understanding in our classrooms. It forces us to think critically as citizens, as community members with a part to play in the stories of Canada, past and present.”

Work remains to be done. Mistrust and misunderstanding have, unfortunately, darkened the relationship for years, but the communities, people and especially the students that Dr. Srigley and her colleagues engage with are sharing a journey forward together. Perhaps a new Spring is indeed around the next corner.

By Bob Pipe with Liz Cohen. Bob Pipe is the communications officer at Nipissing University.

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

March 23, 2015 1:14 pm
Nipissing_University Pond 006

The Aboriginal Initiatives Program at Nipissing University provides a supportive environment to Aboriginal students in a welcoming and understanding way, sensitive to their culture.

Thomsen D'Hont

Thomsen D’Hont

Although many of the students come from Ontario and Quebec, some are from much further away, such as Thomsen D’Hont, a Métis from Yellowknife. D’Hont chose Nipissing partly because the university is flexible. He is a champion cross-country ski racer and for several years took one or two courses a year in different universities while pursuing racing full-time.

“I was hoping to balance skiing and school,” says D’Hont. “Here we have a good varsity ski team and lots of ski trails on campus, and North Bay has a real winter so it’s a good ski season.”

He is studying Liberal Science, which combines science and the humanities, and is not a combination found in many other institutions. “There are broad requirements in both areas. Because Nipissing University has a really flexible program, with lots of accommodation from professors, I could apply credits and prerequisites I already had.” After his degree, he intends to apply to medical school.

Another reason he chose Nipissing was the Aboriginal Initiatives Office. “It’s a great initiative to have a special office devoted to Aboriginal programming. Here, there are a lot of Aboriginal students, lots from northern and rural areas and lots from North Bay itself. It’s a tight-knit program with a strong sense of community. It’s also a great way to get involved in the local Aboriginal community.”

Autumn Varley 2

Autumn Varley

Autumn Varley agrees. She transferred from the University of Ottawa where she took the first two years of her undergraduate degree. “There was a lack of cultural support at Ottawa U,” she says. “I didn’t realize I needed that, but after two years there I knew I did.”

She says, “As soon as I walked into the Aboriginal Initiatives Office I felt welcome. The campus here is beautiful, it’s closer to my home (Tiny, Ontario), and the difference in culture is important.” She says the transition from Ottawa to Nipissing was seamless, even though her studies in Ottawa were in French and in Nipissing she works in English. She also enjoys the smaller class sizes. “The professors know you on a personal basis.”

One of her areas of study she considers most important is the intergenerational effects of residential schools. Another is oral history, which has only been considered a primary historical source for the last 15 years. “I would not have had that opportunity at Ottawa U.” She is also keenly interested in researching child welfare and the disproportionate number of Aboriginal children who end up in care. “It’s common for kids to be moved out of a province, and if that happens there’s not a lot of followthrough in the next province,” a trend which concerns her.

Her own grandmother was moved far from her home as a child, so Varley has a deep understanding of outcomes resulting from that kind of interference. She is also passionate about blending what is seen as Aboriginal traditions and culture with institutions of higher learning. “There is a strong need for more Aboriginal voices in scholarly fields.”

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

January 23, 2015 9:38 am
Photo courtesy of

The purpose of the Aboriginal Initiatives Office at Nipissing University is to provide support to Aboriginal students, encouraging them to participate in and celebrate their culture and heritage.


Mair Greenfield-Nipissing

Mair Greenfield started her career in the Corrections Worker program at Canadore College in North Bay, worked at a detention centre, and attended a bridging program at Nipissing University studying for an Honours Degree in Criminal Justice.

Her Algonquin forebears came from Eagle Village-Kipawa First Nation in Quebec and she was raised in North Bay. Her father is a teacher at Canadore and her mother is the founder of the Nipissing Transition House women’s shelter. Greenfield’s interest in criminal justice was sparked at an early age. She wanted to work in the Aboriginal Initiatives Office at Nipissing U, and took her degree there for that reason.

Working in corrections she saw the disproportionate number of Aboriginal youth who were in jail. She sympathized with those youth who lost contact with their family and cultural connections. Many were from remote or Northern communities and were far from home. “With assimilation, many youth have lost so much cultural identity already,” Greenfield says. “More is lost in jail.”

She says she didn’t know much about her own cultural identity until she was in post-secondary education, and at first that learning was academic. With Aboriginal Initiatives she and other students and faculty get a more hands-on immersion into traditions and culture. “I’m more connected now to my heritage. We have circles, smudging ceremonies, pow wows and potlatches.” But more important she says, is the welcome, regardless of knowledge. “Here it’s okay not to know about First Nations’ heritage. I was embarrassed at first, but I realized a lot of people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, don’t know. We are raising awareness, but in a kind way.”

Greenfield works with volunteer placement programs including Community Service Learning, which matches student volunteers to services. They work with after-school youth groups, elementary and secondary schools, the Children’s Aid Society and other groups.


Kerry Lynn Peltier-NipissingKerry Lynn Peltier grew up on the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island. Her path towards Nipissing U was more complex. She moved to Hamilton where she graduated, studied business at Cambrian College in Sudbury and Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, worked in the casino industry in Niagara Falls for 12 years, became an accredited practitioner of homeopathy and meditation, and moved to North Bay with her partner.

She is currently in her third year of the Nipissing U Social Welfare and Social Development program with a double minor in Gender and Social Justice and in Sociology. Her goal is to help people gain a sense of well-being through health and better relationships. She has used her time at Nipissing well. She has helped design the Aboriginal Student Council, she sings with the university’s community choir and serves as an Aboriginal mentor to children and youth. She has also worked with Greenfield in volunteer placements.

Her varied background qualifies her for many fascinating life opportunities. In 2013, she was part of a Jamaican project where she advised on the business end of ecotourism. She worked with promotion of the Portland Rehabilitation Management project which focuses on homelessness and mental health. She was chosen to introduce Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who visited Nipissing University.

“I like to build relationships,” she says. “And I like to improve health through homeopathy, encouraging individuals to take control of their own health. Health improves happiness and thinking.”

With one year left in her program, she has taken on a special task in 2015. She has been asked to be Aboriginal Ambassador through the Council of Ontario Universities, where she will be promoting Aboriginal success stories.


Photos courtesy of

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

December 17, 2014 12:06 pm

The Aboriginal Initiatives Program at Nipissing University provides an opportunity for Aboriginal students to receive post-secondary education and stay in touch with their own culture and heritage. The goal is to help these students gain success then bring that success to other students in similar situations.

Brian-NipissingBryan Bellefeuille was always very good at mathematics, and while attending St. Joseph-Scollard Hall High School, his teachers pushed him to enter math competitions (some of which Nipissing U hosted) and go on to university.

Until then, he didn’t consider university as an option. Growing up in the Nipissing First Nation, he feels most people there saw public service, labourer work or traditional research as career options, but not academia. “I didn’t think it was feasible,” he says. “But teachers encouraged me and my father would say, ‘be a teacher or a nurse,’ which meant getting some kind of post-secondary education.”
Furthermore, the university’s outreach in local elementary and secondary schools helps as it connects with and encourages future students.

He now has a degree in mathematics and one in geology with a specialty in freshwater hydrology. Next he will go to graduate school to study an Aboriginal educational topic.

“There are many directions,” he says. “I’d like to help create a model for First Nations schools in Ontario and rewrite the current course descriptions for First Nations’ schools with a First Nations’ prospective.” He believes a curriculum should include culture and tradition along with academics. “We can learn math from nature,” he says, “civics and careers from traditional governance, and utilize Aboriginal literature in the English courses.”

His culture teaches him to raise the next generation better than the present one. “I want to focus on youth-atrisk and Aboriginal youth,” who he says are often lumped together but are not always the same. He was recently invited by the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo to be part of a round table about a possible institution for Aboriginal students of mathematics. “It was very positive,” he says and he hopes to carry that positivity forward to the youth coming behind him, including his newborn son.

Nancy-NipissingNancy Shipman is an undergrad student in the Criminal Justice Program at Nipissing University. Since she was a young child she knew she wanted to go into law enforcement. Her three-year degree will be followed by one year of Police Foundations at Canadore College, then she plans to start in police work.

That’s not her only goal though. “Eventually I’d like to develop programs for juvenile delinquent rehabilitation that includes cultural healing and identity.” She points to the Aboriginal youth who end up stuck in the justice system. “The struggle with identity at a young age often leads to criminal activity. Helping Aboriginal youth with collecting identity through cultural healing, such as the healing lodge and talking circles, not throwing what they did wrong at them, but saying here’s what’s wrong and
here’s what you can focus on now… this can provide a pathway leading out of a criminal life.

Shipman was raised on the Walpole Island First Nation reserve in the delta of the St. Clair River in a large tight-knit family. She feels fortunate that she could attend school from prekindergarten to Grade 8 on reserve, but admits that going to nearby Wallaceburg for non-Aboriginal high school, after leaving her sheltered environment, was a shock. “But it may have better equipped me for leaving home for post-secondary education,” she says. She loved the beauty and nature of Northern Ontario. She had often travelled in the area and had planned to move there, but the first year far from home was hard. “I was so homesick I almost quit.” However, she learned something from it. “I proved you can leave your community to achieve goals.”

Nipissing University Provides Quality Education to First Nations Communities

November 27, 2014 12:22 pm

It is frequently forgotten access to learning and high-quality teaching is not available for everyone in Canada. The education provided for aboriginal children is just one example of a group with limited access. Their level of education is well below that of other Canadian children.

The high school graduation rate for on-reserve students is abysmally low, approximately 40 per cent in most provinces. Without proper credentials, First Nations youth often miss out on opportunities at post-secondary institutions and jobs. An under- funded on-reserve education system is often cited as a main reason.

This is not a new issue. Debates about how to improve Aboriginal education have been going on for years. It is a sensitive and complicated subject as Aboriginal education crosses different government jurisdictions. While education is a provincial matter, Aboriginal affairs are federal. There must be a more organized structured system to implement a better education system to serve Aboriginal youth.

Most recently, the Conservative government unveiled the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, or Bill C-33. This bill proposed what was thought to be quality standards for on-reserve education and implementing more control over the system for First Nations. This bill came after a previous plan was rejected by 200 Aboriginal leaders.

Although the revised Bill C-33 intended to be better, it led to the resignation of Shawn Atleo, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

One of the major reforms of the bill was to better align on-reserve and off-reserve provincial standards of education. However, many First Nations leaders opposed the bill, saying it ignored Aboriginal rights. The federal government was also seen as gaining too much control in the system. Atleo resigned after facing backlash from First Nations leaders for supporting Bill C-33.

Now it is back to the drawing board for the federal government and Aboriginal leaders to create fair education reforms. For the meantime though, First Nations youth are trying to access the education available to them.

Nipissing1One place they can go is Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. Nipissing offers the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, which provides resources, programs and support to students. The goal is to assist students in successfully completing their degree at Nipissing University, while providing an enriching experience.

“The Office of Aboriginal Initiatives is a focal point for our aboriginal students here on campus. It gives us an opportunity to reach out to the community,” says Mike DeGagné, president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University.

The Office hopes it can do just that through specific program offerings. One of these offerings is the Aboriginal Advantage Program, run by Elders, Student Success coordinators and faculty. The program celebrates students as Aboriginal individuals by working with them one-on-one in the academic, personal and cultural areas of their lives.

“The people that you speak to who have utilized the program find it very, very helpful,” says DeGagné.

The program offers workshops for writing, grammar and computer skills, as well as counselling options to help manage stress. Cultural needs are fulfilled with sharing circles with Elders and guest speakers.

The Office creates a welcoming environment where everyone feels at home. Another prominent program is the Aboriginal Mentorship Initiative. Student volunteers from Nipissing go and visit high school students in North Bay to talk to them about education and encourage Aboriginal cultural development.

“We have an established network with First Nations communities in the area, so the Office acts as a way regionally to reach out to even young children, to talk not just about university, but about education in general,” says DeGagné.

The focus on education for young children is one of the unique aspects of the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, DeGagné says. The Office aims to reach out and share the values of education to children at a young age, in hopes of creating success for a student over the long term.

“The biggest hope for the program is that its outreach to the community helps Aboriginal students in this region access education,” says DeGagné. “It is also concerned with student success. We want students to attend here. We want it to be a place they feel they can succeed and we want to help retain and graduate Aboriginal students.”

Nipissing3It is with hope other universities in Canada can learn from Nipissing University. Perhaps others can look to the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives for tips on how to create a feeling of community for Aboriginal students.

“The Aboriginal students here have a place to go to study, to ask questions, to get help academically and it provides a sense of community within the school, which by all accounts helps out a great deal,” says DeGagné.

Even in today’s struggle for Aboriginal education, with underfunding being a prime cited cause, it is proven that students, like those at Nipissing University, are able to pull through and attain a high level of education.

“The Office of Aboriginal Initiatives is another avenue for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to get the support and help they need, if they need it,” says DeGagné.

As the publicity winds down from Bill C-33, and leaders consider whether or not they will make amendments to the bill, it must be kept in mind that children are being affected by every decision.

“Bill C-33 was intended to improve elementary and high school education for First Nations. All that education preparation is critical to succeeding in university. So we would have loved to see the bill succeed,” says DeGagné.

When it comes to opportunity and quality education, everyone in Canada should have the same chance to succeed.

The Power of Learning

The Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) in Saskatchewan is a place for Métis students to experience the power of learning. Its number one focus is to promote the renewal and development of Métis culture. With Métis-specific educational programs and services, the Gabriel Dumont Institute offers unparalleled training.

GDI conserves Métis history and culture and is trusted source for Métis-specific information throughout the world.

High-quality programs are offered to improve education and employment outcomes. There are basic education, university-based and skills training classes available. Each class focuses on incorporating a Métis cultural component.

Students at GDI are welcomed with open arms. They are provided with countless resources and services within an understanding environment. GDI wants to see its students succeed; it will even help with job training and seeking.

Nipissing4Métis students are encouraged to engage in the school community and reach out for help when needed. With the publication and development of Métis- focused literature, a virtual museum of Metis history and culture with over 11,000 files, GDI provides access to limitless resources for learning outside of class. GDI is committed to creating the best possible environment for its students.

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

October 10, 2014 10:03 am
aboriginal initiatives
Photo Courtesy of

The Aboriginal Initiatives Program at Nipissing University offers students a unique opportunity to remain connected with their heritage while receiving their education. Throughout the school year, as well as in the summer, the Aboriginal Initiatives Office is busy helping students engage in their studies and in their community in order to be successful as individuals and share this success with others.

LaureeLauree Pizzale graduated from Nipissing’s Liberal Arts program in 2003 with concentrations in Social Welfare and Indigenous Studies. An Omushkego Cree from the Moose Cree First Nation, Pizzale moved to North Bay with her husband a month after they were married in 2001. At the time she was studying at Laurentian but transferred her credits to Nipissing University.

“I was open to Nipissing because it offered an intimate setting for students and it offered a flexibility with its course selections,” she said.

For the last 13 years, Pizzale has been working in the field of mental health and addictions while furthering her studies. In 2013, she completed the Leadership Essentials certification from the University of Toronto and is currently working to finish her Indigenous Social Work degree and hopes to go on to complete a Masters in Social Work at Nipissing.

Working within the community is also very important to Pizzale. She has been asked to be a guest speaker for 3rd-year nursing students at Nipissing to shed light on the history of Aboriginal mental health, approaches to care, cultural competency and safety. Pizzale is a member of the Aboriginal Professionals Association of Canada and each year with a team of locals organizes a community Round Dance. The goal of the Round Dance is to gather people together to educate them in an effort to reduce the stigma related with mental illness. This winter will mark the fifth annual Round Dance which has now become a much anticipated event in the community. This past year, Pizzale had the Dance committee partner with Nipissing’s Aboriginal Initiatives Office, as well as the Nipissing First Nation community and high school in order to make the event bigger than ever before.

Her passion for helping people is clearly reflected in her work and career ambitions as she sees that there is so much work to be done in the field of social work and welfare.

“Many of our Aboriginal people are challenged by mental illness, addictions and/ or learning disabilities,” Pizzale explained. “For the past six years, I have been in the management role and seeking opportunities to make a difference by enabling our cultural approaches of inclusivity and community integration. My vision is to reconnect our people with their communities, the language and culture and promoting our world view, not letting pathology represent their identity.”

BlairBlair Beaucage, Nipissing First Nation from the Garden Village community, graduated in 2012 from the Teacher of Anishnaabemwin as a Second Language Program. One of Nipissing’s ever-growing Accredited Teacher Education Programs, this has helped him start his career as a teacher back in his local community.

Beaucage became interested in this subject while in high school. “I was doing well in my Ojibwe course,” he explained. “I began speaking to elders and got more fluent that way.”

Now, Beaucage is an Ojibwe Language teacher at the very high school he once attended. As he is just starting out as a teacher, it is something he is excited to continue.

“I want to bring the language back to the Nipissing First Nation,” Beaucage said. “Being at Nipissing taught me to work hard for the things I want in life.”

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

August 15, 2014 3:42 pm

Courtney_BindaCourtney Binda, from Wawa, Ontario is interested in pursuing a career in education. She has just completed her final year in the Bachelor of Physical and Health Education and in the fall will be continuing with a consecutive Bachelor of Education degree at Nipissing’s Schulich School of Education. With the small classroom sizes, smalltown feel and outstanding reputation for the Bachelor of Education program, Nipissing seemed like the right choice. Having a strong athletic background and a passion for teaching, Binda fit in to these surroundings nicely. While schoolwork keeps her busy, Binda makes sure she finds time to volunteer with the Aboriginal Initiatives Office. She has been involved in different projects which have allowed her to experience different elements of the education system. “I was situated at Nbisiing Secondary School, a local First Nations high school,” she said. “This program offered students an opportunity to create a cultural project to share with their school and community.” In addition to this, Binda worked as a Tutor Facilitator through Aboriginal Initiatives and Biidaaban, Community-Service Learning. She was the assistant coach of the local high school’s badminton team and a youth coach at the YMCA and currently is a Coordinator for the Science, Engineering and Mathematics Camp offered at Nipissing for the summer. “Throughout my four years at Nipissing University, I have had other countless rewarding opportunities that have allowed me to express my unique teaching style,” she said. Going forward, Binda is excited to achieve a career teaching health and physical education at the high school level as she seems well-equipped to make this dream a reality. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Lorraine Sutherland, from the James Bay area, also moved to Nipissing specifically to pursue her education, knowing that was exactly what she wanted to do. She first completed a Teaching Assistant program at Nipissing to be certified and then pursued an Aboriginal Teaching program at Queen’s University. She became a certified classroom teacher in 1999 and began teaching in 2000. Her interest in learning and passion for teaching brought her back to Nipissing in 2003 to get her Bachelor of Education. Her education continues. Currently earning her Master of Arts with a specialization in History, Sutherland’s thesis is a source of pride. Entitled, “My Mother’s Stories” Sutherland discusses the background history of education in Canada including the experiences of those who had to endure life in residential schools. “It has been an emotional experience from beginning to end,” explained Sutherland. “Having to read reports from the past—it was devastating to read about the kind of history we have in Canada. But it’s important to bring forth the stories of our ancestors.” She credits Nipissing and the Aboriginal Initiatives Office with helping her achieve her academic goals as she finds the professors to be very open-minded and understanding. She too has been involved with the summer programs Aboriginal Initiatives offers, including summer camps, has been a student counselor, translator and has been active in sharing her stories and experiences while going through school. The Aboriginal Initiatives Office is a way for her to give back to the community that she feels has been so immensely compassionate and supportive of her pursuits. “I really don’t think I would be where I am today if I had not had this kind of support,” said Sutherland.

The Art of Mary Pheasant A Mix of Family, Culture and Healing

August 13, 2014 12:26 pm

Kitigan is a one-of-a-kind online Aboriginal art business that sells authentic, high quality, Aboriginal handmade goods. Kitigan provides artisans with a forum for developing their market, promoting their work and creating an ongoing revenue source through sales and royalties. Kitigan is a social enterprise incubated by the OFIFC’s economic development arm, Villages Equity Corporation (VEC). Kitigan not only supports artists, but also Friendship Centres and Aboriginal businesses who act as suppliers. As Kitigan purchases art from its suppliers who are directly engaged with artists, the suppliers will receive commissions on all of their products that are sold. Visit to find unique, high quality, handmade Aboriginal artwork, while supporting our talented artists and our partner Friendship Centres!

Mary Pheasant has been surrounded by art her entire life. She was born and was raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island in 1955 and still lives there today. As a child, she was richly immersed in a mesh of culture and art. She comes from a large family of artists and began making her own art almost 50 years ago.

“My mom, my dad and my grandmother, they were always heavily involved in the cultural aspect,” she says. “My mom was always doing beadwork and making moccasins. My dad was always painting and carving.”

Pheasant started doing beadwork when she was nine years old, saying she always bugged her mom to teach her. Once she learned the basics, her mother showed her how to start work on the loom. She said she kept fooling around with the loom and learned to work with the beads. As she grew into a young adult, she started commissioning her beadwork.

Kitigan_logo_final_landscapeAfter experimenting with different styles and learning from other people, Pheasant taught herself how to make dance regalia. She then started to design dresses with her own sense of style, such as jingle dresses, grass dance outfits and many traditional men’s and women’s outfits.

It was in 2005 Pheasant first picked up a paintbrush and learned how to paint with acrylic on canvas. After becoming sick and not wanting to be on medication, she visited her younger brother, James Jacko, a passionate painter. He ended up becoming her mentor.

“He had been asking me for years to start painting, but I wasn’t ready,” Pheasant says. It took getting sick to finally push her to start painting. “I was looking for something for my own healing.”
After painting for five years straight, she went back to producing beadwork and quillwork, following styles her mom created.

Pheasant’s son suggested she print some of her art canvases as art cards, which proved to be another success for her, with over 12,000 art cards sold. After working full-time until recently, she returned to Manitoulin Island to take care of her older brother and her grandson.

kitigan2Pheasant draws inspiration from her family members, all of whom are artists. She comes from a family of seven brothers and one younger sister. Her four older brothers are involved in art of different types, mostly woodworking and forestry. One of her brothers designs and builds cabins. Two of her brothers are painters, although one passed on. Her younger sister also does appliqué work, embroidery, beadwork and quillwork.

Her husband Robert creates leatherwork and makes pouches from turtle shells. He used to tan his own hides and produce stained glass work. A car crash left the two unable to produce art as they used to, so they moved on to different media.

IMG_3235Pheasant says that in addition to beadwork and painting, she also likes sketching and has an interest in pursuing pottery. She also creates mixed media and gave her first piece of work to her daughter.

Pheasant’s children and grandchildren are all involved in making art. She says her daughter makes contemporary jewelry with traditional medals, beads and feathers, and her son started making art with antlers. Her older grandson also started helping his mother make jewelry. She hopes they will continue to pass on these skills once she is gone, as she did when her parents passed on. Pheasant says her art, culture and family have always intertwined.

“It’s always been there. It’s how we were brought up,” she says. “My dad would always do pipe ceremonies with his kids and he’d always tell us, ‘Always remember who you are,’ and, ‘Never forget where you came from.’ Simple things like that, but very deep.”

Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing University

June 11, 2014 11:00 am
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Continuing with our Aboriginal Pathways series, these two students are participants in programs offered by the Aboriginal Initiatives Office at Nipissing University. Their journeys and experiences have been different yet this Office has helped connect them with others and get involved in the Nipissing community.

tory1Tory Fisher is from Nipissing First Nation. He is already a graduate of the university as he received his Native Studies and Social Welfare degree last year and is currently working toward completing his Bachelor of Education from which he will graduate this year.

Fisher chose Nipissing because of the small classes and during his time there has learned that the professors go above and beyond to help their students succeed. Fisher hopes to emulate the same kind of values when he becomes a teacher and role model.

“I want to be a part of helping future students grow and learn,” he said.

It seems that not only do his professors go above and beyond, but Fisher does as well by getting involved in his local and school community. The Aboriginal Initiatives Office has provided Fisher many different opportunities to get involved with and he has seized them. He said he was fortunate enough to participate in cultural and welcoming events at the university. By singing and drumming at various other events, such as graduations or arrivals of special guests, he feels he is also able to give back to the school that he loves.

Already on track to becoming an educator, Fisher is no stranger to teaching others new things. Providing dance demonstrations and lessons for new students in the Ojibwe language has allowed him to interact with others in a meaningful way by sharing his culture.

In his local community, Fisher is an active member as last year he was chosen to be a part of the working committee for the Nipissing First Nations’ Constitution (Chi- Naaknigewin).

“I was so proud that our community voted ‘yes’ and agreed on having a constitution, which we are now exercising our own First Nation right to sovereignty,” he explained. “It was a very proud day for me as well as my community.”

Jenna Demers has also almost completed her Bachelor of Education at Nipissing. She first earned her Bachelor of Arts, Honours degree in English Studies from Nipissing as well. She knew that Nipissing was the right place for her when she went on a campus tour. Not only did she find herself surrounded in beautiful scenery but everyone there was so approachable and kind.

“The best part was that the friendly, welcoming, familial feel never diminished,” she exclaimed. “After five years as a Nipissing student, I am proud to say I know all of my professors by their first names, and every single one of them has spent office hours listening to me.”

jennaDemers is very involved in the Nipissing community as she does work with the Aboriginal Student Links Program offered through the Aboriginal Initiatives Office, where she works with youth attending nearby high schools. She also is a tutor and essay editor for other students with her school’s Peer Academic Leaders Program. In addition to all this, Demers is the Indigenous Director for the Nipissing University Student Union and occasionally writes for their student journal, NuSense. In the past she has organized an after-school theatre program and then an after- school homework and games club for the Children’s Aid Society through Nipissing’s Biidaaban Community Service-Learning.

Moving forward, Demers has her sights set on working in isolated northern communities. She has developed an interest in leadership and free programming for Aboriginal Youth throughout her education.

“I have this idea of starting a free theatre program in northern communities. Theatre has been a passion of mine since elementary school, and I have seen it do amazing things for many people,” she explained. “I think the best thing about being a part of a theatre production is the fact that you can escape reality, if only for an hour or two, and that’s not a bad thing; sometimes we get tired of reality, and we need that break.”

Aboriginal Arts & Stories Awards for Youth in Gatineau

June 6, 2014 11:56 am
Historica Canada president, Anthony Wilson-Smith

The annual awards ceremony for Historica Canada’s Aboriginal Arts & Stories competition brings together First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth from across the country in celebration of their rich and distinct histories and cultures. The goal of Aboriginal Arts & Stories is to encourage Aboriginal youth, ages eleven to twenty-nine, to creatively explore their heritage through literary and visual arts. The stories and art pieces submitted to the contest touch upon topics of national importance, like the tragic and ongoing legacy of residential schools, or the rediscovery of traditional knowledge and practices, while other works present distinct stories from individual communities and families. The writing and artwork of all finalists is published on the Aboriginal Arts & Stories website. Each year, first place winners receive $2,000 and a trip to the awards ceremony, which is held in a difference Canadian city each year. To date, more than 2,000 inspiring submissions have been received.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the program, culminating in an awards ceremony and exhibition on June 3 at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. Winners were selected from a record 420 submissions from across Canada. First place writing awards went to Aviaq Johnston (21) of Iqaluit, Nunavut for her piece entitled Tarnikuluk, and Andrea Lanouette (16), of Surrey, British Columbia, for her piece entitled Tears. First place arts awards went to Nicole Paul (22) of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan for Keeper of the Voice, and Mercedes Sandy (18), of Christian Island, Ontario, for herQueen Over Democracy collage. This year, the program also introduced the Enbridge Emerging Writer and Emerging Artist category for youth between 11 and 13 years of age. The Enbridge Emerging Writer award went to Dorothea Assin (13) of Kenora, Ontario for My Life, and the Emerging Artist award went to Emlyn Cameron (11) of Atikokan, Ontario for We Are One.

The milestone tenth anniversary occasion offered a unique opportunity to unite this new generation of Aboriginal writers and artists with those who have helped pave the way. This latter group was composed of notable Aboriginal writers and artists from Aboriginal Arts & Stories jury, including Drew Harden Taylor, Lee Maracle, Brian Maracle, Maxine Noel and John Kim Bell, who all took part in the evening’s celebration. Hosted by well-known Aboriginal actor, Nathaniel Arcand, the reception also featured a retrospective video showcasing  winners from past years, accompanied by a special tenth anniversary booklet created through a partnership with through a partnership with Historica Canada, the Walrus Foundation, and Enbridge, Inc. The booklet will be featured in the print and tablet editions of the September issue of The Walrus magazine, as well as the August/September issue of Canada’s History magazine.

photo credits: Annemarie Grudën | Photography, Copyrights Historica Canada

photo credits: Annemarie Grudën | Photography, Copyrights Historica Canada

Presented by long-time program sponsor Enbridge Inc., Aboriginal Arts & Stories is a program of Historica Canada. Supporting sponsors include, TD Bank Group, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Canada’s History magazine. Media Sponsors include The Walrus and Aboriginal Link. The collection of inspiring writing and artwork from more than 100 winners over the past decade is available at

Historica Canada is the largest charitable organization dedicated to Canadian history, identity and citizenship. Its mandate is to build active and informed citizens through a greater knowledge and appreciation of the history, heritage and stories of Canada.

At the close of another year of the contest – the most successful edition to date – Historica Canada is proud to celebrate all the contest winners and participants, and continue to encourage new groups of talented youth to participate throughout the next decade.

Anthony Wilson-Smith

President, Historica Canada

Nipissing University: Aboriginal Initiatives

June 3, 2014 11:01 am
Nipissing_University Pond 006

Nipissing University, located in North Bay, is the perfect environment for learning. Nipissing has the benefit of smaller class sizes, more individual attention and specialized programs catering to students’ needs. For Aboriginal students in particular, though the Aboriginal Initiatives Office, Nipissing offers a unique and wide range of programs to help students succeed in both their scholastic and personal endeavours.

The Aboriginal Initiatives Office provides multiple resources and programs to students that support them in their studies all the while encouraging them to reach out and meet new people. Living up to its slogan, “Enji giigdoyang,” which translated from the Nipissing dialect, means “where we come to meet, discuss and talk about things,” Aboriginal Initiatives creates a friendly and accepting culture.

IMG_3129“We are, first and foremost, here to help students thrive in whatever capacity we can make available,” explained the Office Director, Tanya Lukin-Linklater. That can be personal, academic or financial support. It will help students find resources outside of their program to help them achieve their goals. It is also there to answer questions of any prospective students and to show people around the school.

The Aboriginal Initiatives Office also offers the Aboriginal Advantage Program, run by a team of Elders, Student Success Coordinators, faculty and staff. Working with students one- on-one, they support them with a specific emphasis on celebrating who they are as Aboriginal individuals.

The Program offers three areas of support: academic, personal and cultural. A tutoring service is provided as well as workshops for writing, grammar, computer and study skills. Students also have access to counselling, stress management and assistance in budgeting. Special guest speakers, sharing circles and personal discussions with Elders are also part of the program. Everything that any first-year student needs is covered. Organizers go above and beyond to make their students feel comfortable and confident in this community.

Many students feel that being a part of Aboriginal Initiatives allows them to interact more easily with others as well as make a difference in the surrounding community. In fact, building meaningful partnerships with Aboriginal communities is important to the Office.

One way it reaches out is through its Aboriginal Mentorship Initiative. Student volunteers travel around to high schools in the North Bay area. Together with the younger students, they work on a collective project that serves as a marker of Aboriginal culture in the school.

Anna Peltier is a Nipissing student who volunteers her time with the mentorship program. She says that some of the projects completed in the schools in the past have included building teepees, canoes or painting art murals.

“Part of what we do is about giving back to the community which is embedded in our programs,” Lukin- Linklater.

In fact, in March, the university hosted grade 11 and 12 students for a gathering, Debwendizon (translated to “believe in yourself”). The students were able to take part in short lectures, tour the campus and engage in different learning opportunities and activities. The two-day gathering ended with First Nation member and Anishnabemwin educator, Muriel Sawyer, providing a lesson on the importance of believing in oneself.

Another Aboriginal Initiatives program is the Biidaaban Community Service-Learning (BCSL). The focus is largely on enriching reading, writing and math skills in local youth. Working with nearby schools, not- for-profit organizations and First Nations communities, the program develops a sense of community service by creating relationships and partnerships among students, community organizers and administrators. In the last year alone, the university clocked about 13,000 volunteer hours across the province.

Jenna Demers, organized an after- school homework and games club through the BCSL and in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society. For her, this was a way to get involved in a leadership role and do something she is passionate about. This kind of experiential learning is unique to Nipissing and students truly benefit from the involvement.

Another remarkable aspect of the Aboriginal Initiatives Office is that it runs all year long. When other faculties and departments at the university slow down as they approach the summer months, the Office gears up for its Summer Education Programs. Offering options for youngsters, they have science, engineering and mathematics camps as well as a Youth Experience Program which include activities that vary from year to year. They also have different Diploma Programs in the summer such as the Native Classroom Assistant and Native Special Education Diploma Programs. This way, students are able to take advantage of the different school resources provided by Nipissing.

Lukin-Linklater noted that seeing students who have been involved in the programs graduate is one of her favourite parts of the job. “It’s so rewarding to see how positive it is for them to complete their degree,” she explained. “It’s phenomenal because I know that every time someone completes it, it’s a real success story and that will have a ripple effect in their communities and families.”

Students who are involved with the Aboriginal Initiatives Office find a sense of community and friendship and walk away with new skills as well. “We don’t expect them to take part in every program we offer because they are offered for different reasons,” said Lukin-Linklater. “But every student will take away something special and different.”


Education as Transformation — Answering the call of Chief Dan George

April 29, 2014 11:00 am

“I’m going back to school.”

What a sense of opportunity that simple phrase evokes. Stories of personal growth often begin with those few words. In a society focused on the power of the individual to change their life and begin anew, the pursuit of knowledge is a critical first step. Education is transformative.

My father was a high school graduate, the only one in his family of 12 children. He was also a farmer, a machinery salesman and a teacher. In his time that might have guaranteed a comfortable life; however, he chose something different: an uphill path rooted in the belief that higher education was the catalyst for his family to achieve unimagined possibilities. In the church basement of a small north-western Ontario town he began his post-secondary journey, courtesy of an outreach program. It was a course in the classics, quite different for him, and a building block to a Bachelor of Arts. Two decades later he also received a Master of Arts. Equally important, he demonstrated to his family that higher education was not simply possible, but necessary to the future. All of us, four children, have multiple degrees, and have achieved careers beyond his dreams. One person returns to school and a family is transformed.

Education transforms individual lives and families, but more importantly, it has the power to alter communities. Aboriginal people in Canada have long stood on the sidelines of educational success, having suffered through the Indian Residential School century and having been discouraged from entering post-secondary education at the risk of extinguishing their rights as Aboriginal people. The desire for education has always been there, but access to it was an early challenge.

In his famous 1967 address, Lament for Confederation, the great Chief Dan George proclaimed: “Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success-his education, his skills- and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society.”

Almost a half century later, these tools are being wielded by Aboriginal communities to help build a greater future.

The numbers for Aboriginal participation in post-secondary education paint a dramatic picture. In the 1930s, only one Status Indian was reported to have graduated with a university degree. (source: The New Buffalo, Blair Stonechild). In the mid- 1960s, there were about 200 Status Indian students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities. By 1999, the number had soared to more than 27,000 (source: Post-Secondary Education for Status Indian and Inuit, December 2000). And according to the 2011 National Household Survey, roughly 174,000 people who had self-identified as Aboriginal had a post-secondary qualification. Blair Stonechild writes in his book, The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada, that with the demise of the buffalo, education was the resource that would guarantee Aboriginal people survival in the future. Aboriginal peoples have embraced post-secondary education, but there remains work to do.

Today, Aboriginal people have one of the largest youth populations in Canada and universities and colleges are paying attention. Programs have been developed to introduce young Aboriginal students to the possibilities that exist in university, recruitment is well developed across the country, and there are transition programs to help students succeed. But in many cases the post-secondary system is challenged by helping students overcome poor preparation at the K-12 level. Given the remote location of many First Nations, young people must travel far from home to attend high school or post-secondary institutions. Funding also remains a challenge. While many Canadians might believe that all Aboriginal students receive free post-secondary education, the reality is quite different. Though funding is available, it has not kept pace with the increased number of students rising to meet Chief George’s challenge. First Nations students are, on average, older and are more likely to have children, further exacerbating the lack of funds.

DeGagneEducation is transformative. It is transforming the many nations of Aboriginal people as they seize the tools of social success. A significant step is the recent announcement of First Nations Control of First Nations Education: A New Way Forward. It supports the treaties and the obligations they carry; it allows for First Nations control of education within a framework of First Nations languages and cultures; it sets out obligations to meet or exceed existing provincial standards; and it provides much needed resources. All of these elements support the notion that First Nations control of education is critically important — not control for its own sake, but for the promise of better outcomes for our children.

Universities are helping Aboriginal peoples achieve their educational goals to become the proudest segment of society. We will continue helping individuals overcome the challenges and barriers they face, knowing that individuals raise families, and families change nations. It is the new buffalo.

Dr. Mike DeGagné is the President and Vice- Chancellor of Nipissing University.

Aboriginal Initiatives Program at Nipissing University

April 28, 2014 12:53 pm

Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario offers a unique program for Aboriginal students looking for an opportunity to be involved in their community. Aboriginal Initiatives provides multiple resources that help students successfully earn a degree. The school also organizes both social and educational events that encourage students to reach out and meet new people.

student 1Anna Peltier is a second year student at Nipissing in the social welfare and social development program. Originally from the Wikwemikong community on Manitoulin Island, Peltier received her first diploma from Canadore College in the Social Service Worker program. “I was a foster care resource worker,” explained Peltier. “I worked with young offenders and youth outreach programs.” The mother of a six-year-old boy, Peltier felt that the time was right to go back to school since her son was now in school full-time. You can almost hear the smile in her voice when she talks about him. “I love being involved in his activities,” she said. “Right now he’s at the YMCA taking up drumming and he has his swimming. I’m his number one fan!” Familiar with the North Bay area, Nipissing seemed like the right fit for Peltier for continuing her education. The small classroom setting also appealed to Peltier. Some of her classes have only 10 students. “I really have nothing but good things to say about Nipissing,” said Peltier. “Your teachers know you by name so you don’t feel like you’re just a number.” It is obvious in speaking with her that Peltier has a big heart. After graduating she plans on going back to her home community and working with youth.

Peltier is passionate about working in the child welfare setting. She loves meeting, talking to and working with people and hopes to continue making a difference by doing this. In addition to attending school and keeping up with her son, Peltier is involved with the Aboriginal Mentorship Program offered at Nipissing. As a part of this program, she goes around to high schools in the North Bay area to provide support and help them with a collective project. “We’re in the early stages right now,” she explained. “In the past schools have done art murals, things like that. The kids I’m working with now are thinking of building a teepee or a canoe.”

student 2 Second year student, Tyson Wesley said that the Mentorship Program is something he is interested in getting involved with as well. “It’s a way of giving back to the school,” he said.

Wesley is from the Kaskechewan Reserve near the James Bay coast. He came to Nipissing through the Aboriginal Advantage Program which he described as a one year transition platform. He started at Canadore College in a business program before transferring to Nipissing to study political science. He said that his local community is not far from the Northern Ontario Ring of Fire, a massive mining project. Because of these developments, Wesley sees himself returning to his community after graduating to have an impact through local politics. “I think there is a big market for Aboriginal, educated people in terms of development and resources,” he explained. “It’s a driving force for me to fill those positions.”

Without a doubt, Aboriginal Initiatives at Nipissing will be beneficial in both students’ journeys. The hard work and determination exemplified by Peltier and Wesley strongly reflect what Initiatives stands for. In celebrating their cultures, the Initiatives as well as the people involved continue to make a positive difference not only in the Nipissing community but in the surrounding regions as well.


Multiple Peoples, Multiple Problems, Multiple Solutions

April 23, 2014 12:11 pm

Most Canadians are in favour of good quality education for Canadian children. Good education contributes to good jobs, good income, good health and good lifestyles, all of which are positive forces in society. But for mystifying reasons kids who grow up on First Nations reserves are given far fewer chances for a reasonable education. Their schools, teachers, supplies and other needs are funded at a fraction of what non-reserve students receive through the provinces or territories.

Poor schooling for children on reserves in Canada has been largely overlooked as an issue until very recently, but now questions are being asked. Is it a discriminatory policy? Education funds come from the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC), not from provincial or territorial governments via school boards like the rest of the country. This policy has direct impacts on Canada’s fastest-growing demographic group, Aboriginal persons under age 25.

The problem of education on reserves is compounded by many other factors that can create a disadvantaged population. Some of those factors include health gaps, poverty, remote locations, attracting and retaining good teachers, and negative legacies of the dependency model. Those problems, which will be delved into in future articles, are determinants which have profound impacts on a child’s education. A further issue is the deteriorating condition of many schools on reserve, as highlighted recently by youth leaders in Northern Ontario and Quebec. The populations in Canada which may already face barriers due to race and long-standing societal factors are also expected to accept less.

How much less? “Federal expenditures in education for Aboriginal students remains at 2 per cent,” says Paul Taillefer, President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). “(That) is $2000 to $3000 less per pupil than public school provincial and territorial budgets.” Taillefer was recently told that the federal government is developing a new Education Act which may be presented to the House of Commons in the fall, but the process may be too slow to benefit the kids who need and want it now.

While other young Canadians may pine for an Xbox, a better school was the dream of Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat. At age 13 she campaigned for “safe and comfy schools and culturally based education,” for First Nations children and youth. Says Taillefer, “She was not campaigning just for a ‘comfy’ school.” He says Shannen wanted a school that was also safe. Many schools have major health issues. These include extreme black mould contamination, which can cause serious respiratory illnesses; high carbon dioxide levels; rodent and reptile infestations; sewage fumes; and unheated portables.

Across Canada parents and students often register complaints about portables, but they are a reality, partly because of their flexibility as school enrollment numbers go up and down. But not many Canadian communities would accept portables without heat, especially considering the parts of the country where they are often located, places where -40 C and -50 C are normal winter temperatures and cold snaps can last for weeks.

But even Aboriginal students in warmer climes suffer. “I worked at the Squamish Nation School,” says Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS), and outspoken proponent of equality for children. “Those kids got far less funding than the school across the street.”

In 2007, on behalf of the FNCFCS and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) she brought a formal complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. She still feels outrage that these extreme measures have to be taken. Her voice determined, she adds, “These are little kids who haven’t done anything—they just want to grow up.” The inequities go deep, she says, and cites numerous cases. “Racial discrimination against children is an acceptable fiscal restraint policy by the Government of Canada.”

CTF president Taillefer says, “Besides receiving less funding per student, these communities do not receive funds for libraries, computers, languages or extracurricular activities.” That is one of the platforms of Shannen’s Dream, an organization started after Shannen Koostachin’s tragic death in an accident. The young girl, barely in her teens, came to Ottawa in 2008 to meet with MP Chuck Strahl, who was then minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Her campaign was prompted by the minister’s earlier announcement that Attawapiskat would not be getting a new school because it was not part of the Long-Term Five-Year Capital Plan.

The previous school had been contaminated by a fuel spill two decades earlier. After years of stalling the unusable school was replaced with “temporary” portables. The community lobbied for a new school, which seemed like a reasonable expectation. AANDC even provided $194,718 in 2006-2007 to prepare a School Capital Planning Study.

Why was that federal money spent if there were no plans to provide a school? And why, after Attawapiskat had prepared and presented a proposal for a bank loan to provide bridge financing, did AANDC refuse to commit to this alternative financing? The community had done the extensive paperwork, had talked to the banks, had put a plan in place, and had acted in good faith. Documents from Strahl, received through Freedom of Information, say AANDC could not commit because, “Treasury Board approval of the project had not been granted. “ Which begs the question, is the federal Treasury Board the appropriate department to be making decisions on small communities’ schools?

NDP MP Charlie Angus took up the issue and media attention increased. The department’s response was to spend a great deal of time and money on public relations damage control, including hiring PR firm Hill & Knowlton. Seven years later Attawapiskat remains in the news, as do other communities nearby.

It appears the federal government is still practising damage control. In March of this year a statement by MP Bernard Valcourt, current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, says, “Since 2006, the Harper Government has built over 30 new schools and renovated over 200 more, providing First Nation youth with better learning environments.” Blackstock refutes those claims. “Most Canadians would think, even I thought, well that sounds good. But on closer inspection they’ve just rejigged some numbers.”

A common comment among individuals who have come from provincial school systems and later worked in the North or on reserves, is that even when teens successfully graduate from high school they are not prepared for post-secondary education. Some students must redo many of their high school credits, because the education they received is not equivalent with other high schools’ courses, and so are not adequate prerequisites for universities and colleges. How many teenagers can stomach the idea of another two years of high school courses before they can even start university? The increased likelihood of coming from a low-income family and having to live very far from home compounds the problem. What if provinces or territories topped up federal funding? That opens the competitive can of jurisdictional worms, which is a huge problem across F/P/T mandates. Assuming politics prevents that change, what about simply levelling the playing field? Give the kids on reserves the same funding that everyone else in the country receives. Some of the schools and programs are so far behind they should really get more just to get caught up, but equality would be a start.

Should education funding be removed from federal responsibility completely? Would it make more sense for all schools to receive all funding through the provinces or territories where they are located? The federal government could provide transfer payments, and along the way get rid almost half of AANDC, a department which many Canadians question the existence of. Local school boards are positioned to understand students’ needs, and there is the advantage of having local representation in the form of elected trustees. Is it reasonable to expect the highest level of government to keep tabs on individual communities’ education needs?

Cultural barriers can sometimes be in the way too. Many closed or remote communities have a culture which scorns members who want to live a different life or have aspirations for new careers. That culture can make achieving those goals difficult. For example, in many Hutterite colonies children only attend their own school, which usually goes to Grade 8, making it hard to get away. It can be the same in remote communities, most of which are Aboriginal. Young adults who do manage to go away to school or to get a good job might be ostracized when they come home. MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett, former Minister of State for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and current Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic, says protection comes in numbers. “They need a posse,” she says. “There has to be enough of them so that they’re not lonely and then they’re less easy to ostracize.“

Before becoming an MP Dr. Bennett was a medical practitioner and had also worked in the Northwest Territories. She said health determinants combined with poor housing conditions contribute to the education issue. “If 12 people live in one small house with no running water, the kids have no privacy, they can’t do homework, and they get sick. Sometimes schools on reserved are closed because there are no students—they’re all sick.” She also worries about teen parents, especially girls, for whom education goes to the bottom of the priority list when they are wrapped up in caring for babies and trying to find enough money to live. She says the structure of health care, with its emphasis on curing disease, rather than preventing it, is part of the problem. “We’re patching up and that’s failing. We need to embrace the medicine wheel concept. To stay healthy we need physical, emotional and spiritual health.”

As part of consultations she led when PHAC minister, speaking with First Nations individuals working in health care and education across the country, one topic that came up repeatedly was summarized by Bill Mussel of the Native Mental Health Association. Under a person’s feet there needs to be a secure personal and cultural identity, that is, high self-esteem and a strong social outlook.

That relates to another issue—family members struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, or with serious medical problems of their own, such as diabetes or tuberculosis. What if no one gets the kids out the door in the morning? Some communities have started addressing that by finding someone who physically goes to the children’s homes and gets them on their way. Also providing breakfast at school is becoming a policy at many schools, both on and off reserve. It is well known that kids learn better if they’re not weakened and distracted by empty stomachs.

The story of the non-school in Attawapiskat has been repeated in First Nations’ communities across the country. Contrary to perceptions held by some Canadians that Aboriginal people don’t make an effort, or that the youth of today are lazy or unmotivated, it is young people who are making their voices heard.

The Journey of Nishiyuu is the most extreme example of that. In January of this year seven young Cree men: David Kawapit Jr., Stanley George Jr., Travis George, Johnny Abraham, Raymond Kawapit, Gordie Rupert, and Jordon Masty started walking from the coast of Hudson’s Bay all the way to Ottawa. Pulling their own supplies on toboggans, these young people, these kids, did something akin to the journeys of Terry Fox or Rick Hansen. Along the way they picked up more walkers and were finally greeted by thousands of people in Ottawa, although not the Prime Minister.

Such a feat of strength, courage and deep understanding of the land being traversed is not undertaken lightly. Campaigning for better schools is part of the Idle No More movement and part of why these youths walked.

Teenagers don’t walk 1600 kilometres in the coldest part of winter because things are going great at home. If nothing else makes the country take a second look at First Nations education that should.


Join the Conversation between Canadians and Aboriginal Peoples

June 20, 2013 5:46 pm

Poverty, lack of education and almost no consultation in important decision-making processes have contributed to the deeply rooted colonial relationship that exists between Canadians and indigenous peoples. In discussing nation-to-nation responsibilities, treaty rights, treaty responsibilities and personal commitments, the series aims to build a dynamic that can move towards decolonization and fulfilling the Anishinaabe prophecy.

The idea for the series is rooted in an Anishinaabe prophecy that calls for the Canadian and indigenous communities to come together and build the “Eighth Fire” of justice and harmony. But, this prophecy can’t be fulfilled without first uncovering and discussing some of the longtime struggles that indigenous people have faced.

It’s time for the divide between Canadians and aboriginal people to come to an end. Treaties, promises and the plight of Canada’s indigenous population cannot be overlooked any longer.

This is the primary message of the Niigaan in Conversation series, sponsored by the Cree Indians. (Niigan is Ojibwe for “ahead”, “at the front”, “leading.”) Taking place in Ottawa over the coming months, Niigaan in Conversation aims to build dialogue about nation-to-nation relations. Previous conversations featured leaders, academics and activists such as Chelsea Vowel, Shiri Pasternak and Ed Bianchi. Connected with Idle No More, the series is aimed at sparking a discussion between all factions of Canadian society, whether indigenous or not, in order to solve deeply entrenched problems.

With events taking place on July 10, July 31 and August 14 at Gallery 101, the conversation continues. 

Find out more at or www.facebook/niigaanfuture. Join the conversation.


Canadians: Guardians of Equality and Justice

August 26, 2011 5:52 pm
guardian of equlity and justice 2

Equal access to social services, education, and safe water, are of the most pressing issues for Canada’s First Nations People.   In Canada, there are countless organizations that are working toward the common cause of improving the quality of life for Canada’s First Nations People.  These organizations are necessary tools in the process of change. Or, are they?

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the Canadian Human Tribunal, and Health Canada are examples of organizations that have the ability to effect change.  The most effective solution would be for these organizations to carry out their mandate without political interference. Unfortunately, decisions seem to be more commonly motivated by politics as opposed to being motivated by efficacy. One example in particular is that of the community of Attawapiskat, a remote northern First Nations community near James Bay.

Andrew is a 12-year-old boy who loves fishing, hunting, and the Ottawa Senators. He wakes up each morning in a house he shares with 11 other people including his parents, siblings, grandparents, aunt, and cousins.  In the remote First Nation community of Attawapiskat, the tap water has contaminants, such that he can’t bathe or shower for too long for fear of breaking out in skin rashes or picking up disease.  He must make a daily trek each morning with his dad to the water treatment plant to fill their water jugs with potable water. The school he attends is a rundown portable that sits on a contamination site.


Such conditions would be intolerable in Ottawa or any other Canadian urban centre.

In February 2007, on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and the  First Nations Family and Child Caring Society  of Canada (FNCFCS) , Cindy Blackstock, human rights champion and Executive Director of the Caring Society, submitted a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission  alleging that the Government of Canada discriminates against Aboriginal children, such as Andrew,  in the provision of a service on the grounds of race and ethnic origin, by systematically underfunding child services on reserve.

Ms. Shirish Chotalia, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal chairwoman, dismissed the complaint this March arguing that in order to prove discriminatory treatment, there must be a comparator group. She ruled that there was no comparator group. Her logic was that one could not compare on-reserve children to off-reserve children since the source of funding for education and welfare differs for each.

On reserve children are cared for by the federal government while the provinces take care of off-reserve children. Although the inequality was evident, she ruled that “technically” there was no discrimination.

The ruling, says Blackstock, effectively “legalized racial discrimination against vulnerable children on reserve by the Federal Government.”

In her job as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Blackstock has seen many cases like Andrew’s. In fact, it would be the rule rather than the exception.  The tribunal’s decision should give pause to anyone beyond the reserve who may be marginalized or experience discrimination at the hands of our government.

Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child Family and Caring Society

“The implications of this case reach into the households of all Canadians,” said Blackstock, “and into the hearts of all caring Canadians who believe in the equality and sacred treatment of all children.”

The Harper Government is satisfied with the Tribunal’s decision to dismiss the complaint filed by the AFN and the Caring Society.

“We believe that the best way to address the complex issues surrounding First Nations Child and Family Services is through collaboration with First Nations, provinces and territories and not through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal,” said Margot Geduld, a spokeswoman with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

Blackstock says that it is typical of this government not wanting any outside criticism of its lack of concern for First Nations’ issues, but that isn’t stopping Blackstock from appealing the decision.

Once a prominent human rights lawyer herself, Ms. Chotalia’s ruling was not consistent with a message that she delivered at a Constitutional Forum in the winter of 1993: “Rather the translation of legal right into ‘living rights’ is subject to the good-will of the citizens of the country who work individually, and collectively with their elected representatives and other communities, to ensure that all persons are treated with dignity, respect and fairness.  Canadians, more than their Constitution, are the ultimate guardian of equality and justice.”

In the past Ms. Chotalia has rigorously defended this principle by opposing discrimination based on gender, race, age, sexual orientation, mental disability and physical disability. Ironically, today, she is one of those Canadians who is “the ultimate guardian of equality and justice” yet ruled to let vulnerable kids like Andrew continue to live in unjust circumstances, putting him and the lives of other First Nations children across the country at risk. Her decision effectively supports and rationalizes outdated federal government policies that are inherently discriminatory.

The lack of funding, resources, and accountability also permeates INAC’s administration of First Nations’ Education.

Shannen Koostachin, a young 13 year old from Attawapiskat who became a hero to her fellow students in her community and across the country, recognized the importance of education. She was also aware of the lack of proper educational resources available to on-reserve children. She had attended school in this dysfunctional educational system.

Shannen Koostachin speaking at National Day of Action

As reported by the Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, this past June, the education gap between First Nations children and children in the general population is widening. It will take 28 years for First Nations children to meet the national average of secondary school graduations.  Shannen, who recognized the educational crisis her community faced, decided to take action and stand up to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ Minister Chuck Strahl.

The crisis began in 1979, when there was a diesel spill under the JR Nakogee elementary school.  One hundred and fifty thousand litres of diesel spilled under the school. For the following twenty years, the kids of Attawapiskat would be exposed to a variety of contaminants and toxic substances.

The health effects of this toxic spill were obvious with both staff and children experiencing symptoms such as asthma, headaches, nausea, and fainting.  Studies were carried out and reports were produced that identified the school as a “Class 1” contamination site which required immediate remedial action due to its dangerous effects on humans, animals, and the environment. Although at the time this particular parcel of land belonged to the Crown and not the reserve, the federal government turned a blind eye.

Finally, in 2000, at parents’ and staff’s insistence, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada finally closed the school and supplied portables as a temporary solution.  Ten year later, the kids still attend school in these portables.  In 2007, after promises of a new school from three different Ministers: Robert Nault, Andy Scott, and Jim Prentice, the new Minister Chuck Strahl cancelled all plans of a school. Even though the funds had already been approved and appropriate measures had been taken by the band, he decided that funds would be best spent elsewhere. Member of Parliament for the region, Charlie Angus, challenged Strahl and received the following response:

“…exceptional funding pressures have arisen for the Department’s Ontario Region.  This has caused a number of new school projects to be deferred into future years, including Attawapiskat First Nation’s.”

This was not acceptable to the kids of Attawapiskat.  Led by student Shannen Koostachin, they began the largest grass roots movement led by children and even brought the issue to the United Nations. People all over the country began to take notice and to support their cause. Canadians all over the country acknowledged the crisis and a letter writing campaign began.

Shannen had the opportunity to meet Minister Strahl.  After initial introductions, he asked her what she thought of his office. She said, “I wish I had a classroom that was as nice as your office.” He proceeded to tell the community leaders that building a school wasn’t a priority for his government. As he got up to leave Shannen looked him square in the eye and said, “We’re not going to go away. We’re not going to give up.” She became even more determined.

Chuck Strahl, Minister of INAC, December 2009

The Department and Strahl responded to questions from the national community with spin. They referred to a priority list of schools which the Parliamentary Secretary later confirmed was non-existent.  The department gave strict orders to stick with “media lines” and under no circumstances to deviate from them. Documents and emails obtained through Access to Information from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, uncovered the following directives:

“…and deliver the lines. Stick to them to the letter!! This is another one that just isn’t going to go away.”

“I think we have successfully moved away from focusing on the HC (Health Canada) health and safety inspection message.  Hope this helps.”

The whole ordeal now seemed to be a power struggle between Minister Strahl and the community as to who would have the last say.

With Shannen’s relentless efforts to communicate her community’s message to the country, non-profit organizations, unions, students, teachers, and media began to press political buttons that Strahl could no longer ignore. The issue was now becoming visible internationally and it became apparent that Strahl was feeling the burden of the movement.

Finally in December 2009, at the Special Chiefs’ Assembly, Strahl announced that a school for Attawapiskat would be in INAC’s capital plan.

In 2011, ground breaking has still not occurred.  Shannen will not get to see her dream come to fruition. The young hero died in a car accident in the spring of 2010.  However, her legacy lives on with the organization “Shannen’s Dream” which strives to hold the government accountable to its commitment to First Nations’ children’s education.

Unequal access to social services and education are just two examples of the discrimination that the Government of Canada practices against the First Nations people. The deprivation of the most basic need in life: water, is undoubtedly the most harmful of Constitutional transgressions.

In April 2008, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl stated at a news conference:”“If you don’t have water and access to clean water in a country like Canada, then we’re doing something wrong.” I guess he was doing something wrong. There were 92 communities under water advisories at that particular time.  When Strahl left office in May 2011, there were over 111.

Providing access to safe drinking water is an essential service that is vital to health, human dignity, and life.  The Charter guarantees the rights of life, liberty, security of the person, and equality.  Governments must provide essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians. INAC continues to create initiatives to improve the accessibility of safe water to First Nation communities.  The initiatives are failing. The federal government is losing its sense of urgency in addressing the crisis.  In 2006, an Expert Panel on Safe Drinking water for First Nations concluded “the federal government has never provided enough funding to First Nations to ensure that the quantity and quality of their water systems was comparable to that of off-reserve communities.”

Kids of Attawapiskat demonstrating

In Attawapiskat, approximately 1,500 residents share one tap of potable water.  The community members must leave their homes, sometimes in minus 40 weather, to get their water from the treatment plant. There, they stand in line in order to fill their bottles of water.  The water that flows from the taps in their homes is not potable and at times there have been dangerously high levels of toxic substances reported that would prohibit the community members from even bathing, or showering. Yet the federal government doesn’t view the situation as a crisis.  The situation that Attawapiskat faces isn’t extra-ordinary but is rather common among First Nation communities.

The average duration of a drinking water advisory for a First Nation community is 343 days. The maximum has been 12 years.  Some communities have lived without adequate water infrastructure for generations.

Some communities such as Pikangikum, Ontario, are in a dire sense of urgency. As of 2010, most residents in the community still lacked running water, access to safe drinking water, and indoor toilets. The report published in 2006 under the authority of the Minister of INAC by the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking water for First Nations, identified communities that were at a high risk of adverse physical and psychological effects due to lack of access to water. These communities were not identified as high risk by INAC in their own risk assessments.

Environment Canada, Health Canada, and Indian and Northern Affairs each hold a degree of responsibility in ensuring safe water on First Nation communities. The community is responsible for infrastructure as well as day to day operations of the water system; however, they are always accountable to Indian and Northern Affairs to demonstrate their efficiencies.  The implication of having several federal government organizations engaged in the process of ensuring safe drinking water also provides them with a means of deferring responsibility.  Without an end point of accountability, the problem is cyclical.

School demolition

The question remains, is the Government of Canada violating the constitutional right of First Nations persons living on reserves by not providing them equal access to safe drinking water? Removing the Constitutional question from the issue, is it still right for the Government of Canada to turn their backs and to deprive First Nations people of Canada from their basic human right to water? Ms. Chotalia’s words accurately reflect the necessary view to propel Canada forward with confidence to remedy the situation:

Canadians, more than their Constitution, are the ultimate guardian of equality and justice.”

The cliché “Time is of the essence” holds true.  Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser documented these atrocious conditions on First Nations communities and stated that the conditions are worsening due to the slow action of federal government stakeholders.  Fraser remarked: In a country as rich as Canada, this disparity is unacceptable.”

The current government has the ability to make history by investing in the First Nations People of Canada and to stand up for the values with which we self-identify as Canadian. They are equipped with the knowledge, tools, and resources to make significant positive changes to improve the lives of First Nations People and to do it immediately and effectively.  However, the bureaucracy proves to be slow and complicated.  As the old Native proverb suggests, perhaps if elected officials walked a mile their moccasins, the wheels of change would move more quickly.

The Path to Self-Governance: A Rationale Behind Eradicating the Indian Act

July 13, 2011 8:36 am

An archaic and racist-based legislative barrier to First Nations Peoples achieving self-governance is the Indian Act. It is considered one of their biggest obstacles. The Act is outdated and an inaccurate reflection of the current relationship between the original inhabitants of our country and the federal government. This affects the ability of First Nations Peoples to build democratic governments and develop the effective management of power and policy to be determinants of their own law.

First administered in 1876, the Indian Act defined who could be registered as an “Indian,” stipulating legal rights and disabilities for those registered and obtaining status. For example, before 1985, those with this status could lose it through marrying a man who was a non-Status Indian, enfranchisement, having a mother/paternal grandmother without status or being born out of wedlock to a mother with status and a father without. Bill C-31 amended these laws and saw many regain status. In 2000, the Act was changed to allow band members living off reserves to vote in band elections and referendums. Overall, there have been over twenty changes made to the Act, which sets rules for governing reserves, how bands can be created and how band councils operate.

In a report prepared for the National Centre on First Nations Governance titled Like an Ill-fitting Boot: Government, Governance and Management Systems in the Contemporary Indian Act, Carleton University Professor Frances Abele, explains a few of the Act’s flaws.

“It reflects administrative and organizational practices that were characteristic of public institutions in the early and mid-twentieth century, but that have been modified and superseded in other governments. The Act relies upon regulation, top-down authorities, fiscal control and enforcement. Today most Canadian governments and other organizations rely upon collegial decision-making and policy development, policy research, human resource development, management accounting systems and citizen engagements. The Indian Act does not mention these things and the basic provisions do not leave much room for them,” she states.

To fuel change, Prof. Abele said it is not only the Crown and federal government’s responsibility to get rid of the Act but also the responsibility of the other parties to the treaties. In Bands or collectively as a whole, First Nations must come together to create the energy needed to eradicate the Indian Act.

“It was first hatched to provide the legal means to control Indigenous People in North America. It still bears the scars of that original purpose,” she said. “There have been important amendments to reduce gender discrimination in the act most recently and some of the most oppressive features, but it is still extraordinary in Canada because there is no other group of people in the country except prisoners in jails, who are subject to such a heavy hand of executive authority.”

It is clear dismantling the Act and in turn dissolving the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (DAAND) (formerly the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) needs to be done. However, there are other obstacles requiring consideration before such a task is completed. The Act does provide for certain securities of First Nations on reserves and a replacement is needed to ensure these remain while also serving as a better expression of the relationship with the federal government – one of “mutual respect and based on negotiation rather than attempts at social engineering and oppression,” said Prof. Abele.

Once the Act is gone, then recommendations could begin to detail what would happen to DAAND.

“The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 recommended DIAND be dissolved and to create something like a large service department. The rest would be an agency responsible for taking care of the federal side of the relationship – that office should be in the PCO or attached to cabinet and the other things the department still administers – whether education funding or economic development funding – could be in the service department,” she added.

National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, a strong advocate for self-governance for First Nations, says North American academic leaders say the key to self sufficiency for First Nations is a genuine decision-making authority that is also supported by capable, governing institutions.

“The Indian Act was unilaterally and externally imposed on First Nations – it was not of our choosing,” he said. “Over 600 First Nations across the country have been saying that what needs to happen, based on section 35 in the Canadian Constitution, recognizes and affirms that Aboriginal title and treaty rights exist in this country. Based on those rights, First Nations should be supported with the freedom and ability to set their own path forward based on their culture. We have a real fundamental clash between the Indian Act, which has really resulted in our people being ranked 73rd on the UN Human Development Index, when Canada ranks third. We have the highest rates of suicide, unemployment and the Act does not support nor empower First Nations’ self-sufficiency.”

First Nations have been advocating for a new approach that confirms the original treaty relationship for over four decades, but Canada’s misunderstanding of our most important peoples continues. A lack of awareness may be a contributing factor and National Chief Atleo says there is not enough comprehension of the issue to really undertake it. Instead of respecting First Nations as a collective of many people, of over 50 languages and varying cultural differences, the Act imposes a skewed perspective as a single unit.

“It’s not about imposing something to replace the Act and repeat those mistakes – it’s about getting behind community-based change and removing barriers. It’s about supporting First Nations on their own path and to be able to retain their existing supports they have and land base,” added Chief Atleo. “What we’re suggesting is that we need to shift away from the current approach into something that is going to pave the way for positive change.”

A move towards this path could be creating a body like a Ministry of First Nations Crown Relations, he said, representing the relationship between First Nations and the Crown.

“Other ideas that come from international examples like New Zealand is the idea of a treaty rights tribunal which brings the idea of independence and fairness,” he said. “Right now, the federal government is both judge and jury when it comes to negotiations with First Nations.”

Prof. Abele says one of the biggest obstacles is that the Indian Act and DAAND are tied to certainties like preserving First Nations residence on a commonly held land base and other rights they believe the treaty ensures. “We now have recognition of the value of the treaties and all of that constitutes a political advance for Indigenous people and the rest of us because it moves things more towards justice but it’s bound up in the reality that it has been DAAND that has administered all the programs pursuant to the treaties and the act that constituted the relationship. There is a lot of mistrust by First Nations about top-down initiatives to get rid of the Act,” she explained.

A grassroots process to enact change headed towards self-governance is already well underway throughout the country as some First Nations are re-writing their own membership codes and institutions, said Prof. Abele. One example demonstrating the advances First Nations have already made includes the National Centre for First Nations Governance (NCFNG), an organization that models effective governance on five pillars including: the people, the land, laws and jurisdiction, institutions and resources. The Centre has also developed and piloted an innovative law policy development workshop in recognition of the need for improving decision-making tools. Anisa White of NCFNG’s Land, Law and Governance Research directorate stated:

“In an era where the Crown has heightened obligations to consult and accommodate First Nations, it is incumbent upon First Nation governments to set out clearly defined consultation and accommodation policies. Policy development is a critical part of protecting the rights and interests of nations as well as ensuring territorial integrity. We need to move forward in reconciling the rights and interests of First Nations with the assertion of Crown sovereignty. Ultimately, exercising inherent rights of self-governance begins with law and policy.”

For National Chief Atleo, the key for First Nations to design their own governing system is education reform. He says it also makes good economic sense to support First Nations people in the workforce because of Canada’s ageing population and research proving that closing the success gap in education and employment by 2026 would contribute $179 billion to Canada’s GDP. “A strong First Nations makes a stronger Canada. We have to increase the rate and pace of positive change. I look in the eyes of our young people across the country and I see there is a burning desire to lift the people in their communities up and they are prepared to take the rightful place,” he said.

Prof. Abele is also optimistic about the new generation coming into power, as they are more educated with a “psychological set point already starting from a basis of more quality than their parents and grandparents.” In the future, she said she sees many forms of self-government, DAAND and the Indian Act will no longer exist, and a diverse array of small governments across the country will thrive.

“It may not be a single event, but maybe we could say between 1995 and 2025, First Nations across the country began to take control of their own institutions of governance and in the end radically transformed their relationship with the Crown,” she said.

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