Amber Dion, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, is wrapped in a MacEwan University Pendleton blanket by Terri Suntjens, director of Indigenous Initiatives and kihêw waciston (left), and Dr. Leona Makokis, Elder and member of the Kehewin Cree Nation (right), as part of a ceremony in late June.
Amber Dion was recognized at a pipe ceremony in late June for her contributions to Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan University.
In the six years that Dion has been an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, she has helped shape the university’s ceremony policies and procedures, taught Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being within the university’s classrooms, and actively engaged with the social work community. Together with Terri Suntjens, she hosts the podcast Two Crees in a Pod, which was nominated for a 2020 Canadian Podcast Award.
“Our faculty contribute to our community in many ways – through their teaching, service and scholarly activity,” says Dr. Annette Trimbee, president and vice-chancellor. “We are incredibly grateful for Professor Dion’s many contributions to advancing Indigenous initiatives at the university and to making sure MacEwan is a safe and welcoming place for Indigenous learners.”
We spoke with Dion about what inspires her, the projects that stand out most, the ties between her teaching and advancing Indigenous initiatives, and what this recognition means.
Q. How do you see the connection between your role as a faculty member and your commitment to Indigenous initiatives?
When I began my teaching role at MacEwan, I quickly searched for Indigenous folks, spaces, events and initiatives. When you are a visible, self-identifying person of colour – more specifically, an Indigenous person at a predominantly non-Indigenous place – it can be detrimental to your success when you feel invisible or that there is a lack of healthy representation. I knew that MacEwan was a place I would stay for a long time and wanted to find some roots to connect and grow with.
But seeking folks who were “like me” was difficult. There were very few of us, and the spaces were small (both figuratively and literally). At that time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action were rolling out, and I wanted to understand what MacEwan was doing in relation to education, so I went to the university’s leadership and met with the president at that time to ask. A team of Indigenous and ally folks began working on initiatives like ceremony policy and procedures, visibility and relationships across campus. These were not new conversations – people had been requesting, demanding visibility and honouring for years.
I know that my teaching role is intrinsically connected to what MacEwan represents. If I am teaching Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being within the university’s classrooms, then the university needs to appropriately honour that knowledge and implement everything I require to do so. I wasn’t going to stop the conversation until we were heard.
Q. Is there a particular project or activity that you have been part of that stands out in your mind?
There are so many projects or events with such deep meaning, but the one that stands out the most is developing ceremony policy and procedures. The Indigenous Initiatives Committee worked so hard, along with the team at kihêw waciston, to ensure that our ceremonies, languages and practices were honoured.
Before the policy and procedures were in place, I had to smudge in permitted spaces or do it “underground” in the classroom. I knew the risk I was taking and was willing to face the consequences. So when the university passed the policy and procedures, it was huge – not only for me but also for our students and the entire university community.
We didn’t ask for permission; we asked to do this work in relationship. I am now smudging in my classroom with my students and giving them the opportunity to learn about the beauty of who we are.
Q. What inspires you and keeps you moving forward with this work?
My children inspire me, and I advocate so tirelessly because if my daughters decide to attend MacEwan, I want them to see themselves here. I want them to walk into this institution and feel like they belong. They have every right to access their medicines, language, songs and ceremonies within an educational institution. That is their inherent right and the right of every Indigenous student that walks through MacEwan’s doors.
My other inspiration is my parents. My father, who passed away in May 2021, was a residential school survivor. My parents always encouraged their children to get a western education – they knew and still know the importance of how we walk in these two worlds and the struggles we endure. I do this for them.
Q. What does this recognition mean to you?
I am so humbled and honoured. When I first started at MacEwan and was just getting my footing in a full-time teaching position, I was also doing Indigenous initiatives work and community work off the side of my desk. I did it because it was important. This often happens with Indigenous folks in academia. We take on a lot of work. To be honoured in this way is so meaningful. I know my dad is proud of me, and that’s all a daughter could ever ask for.
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