On a snowy day in late April, a bus filled with MacEwan University students and faculty pulled up to a three-story, almost 90-year-old brick building near St. Paul.
Their arrival at the former residential school, now University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, marked a poignant end to the Spirit Bear Dialogues ᐊᐦᒑᐦᐠ ᒪᐢᑲᐧ ᐅᓯᐦᒋᑫᐃᐧᓂ ᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ, an interdisciplinary dialogue that had over 100 students and more than 20 faculty members from the two post-secondary institutions looking at Indigenous research through the lens of decolonization and reconciliation.
Throughout the Winter 2019 semester, faculty members and students explored Indigenous issues in their courses – everything from anthropology, psychology and history to nursing, English, design and arts and cultural management – took part in three forums, participated in online discussions, presented their assignments and research at Student Research Day, and came together for a Celebration of Learning event at Blue Quills.
Engaging in deep discussions about ethically introducing Indigenous ways of knowing into research and listening to stories from residential school survivors as they toured Blue Quills that day was an enlightening, intense and emotional experience for many students, says Roxanne Tootoosis, MacEwan’s Indigenous Knowledge Keeper.
“Canada hasn’t been kind to our people, and our work is to bring that truth to the forefront and to bring more Indigenous knowledge into the curriculum,” she says. “Conversations around truth and reconciliation can be scary for our students, but the Celebration of Learning at Blue Quills was so profoundly impactful for the students who came. It was an awakening.”
Ian Brown, a second-year social work student, agrees that there is something very powerful about hearing those stories in the place where they happened.
“I had this physical feeling of knowledge and story in my chest,” he says. “But as we learned more about the terrible things that happened there, we were also seeing students walking around in their Blue Quills hoodies and feeling the positive energy for the present and the future.”
Panelists Bernie Makokis, president of Iyiniw Education Institute, and Darin Keewatin, an Indigenous consultant speak about Indigneous ways of knowing and being at the first Spirit Bear Dialogues forum in January 2019.
It was the first time the Blue Quills students, many of whom had participated in the forums via livestream, were able to join the MacEwan students in the same physical space. The rich dialogue that happened that day illustrates the importance of the partnership between the two universities, says Sherri Chisan, president of University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills. “As institutions expand their programs in Indigenous knowledge, we are able to share our long experience and assist with context and connections.”
“It’s a very layered project – one where both students and faculty are on a journey together.”
The complexity of emotion that came from making those connections mirrors the complex nature of the dialogue, according to Dr. Leslie Dawson, anthropology faculty member and the 2019 Interdisciplinary Dialogue organizing committee lead.
“It’s a very layered project – one where both students and faculty are on a journey together,” she says. “I’m blown away by the commitment of time and energy I’ve seen everyone invest in the dialogue.”
That investment resulted in learning that extended far beyond the classroom and was about much more than a grade.
For Jade Fleury, who took part in the dialogue as part of Leslie’s anthropology course, the learning was personal. For the course assignment to create a digital story, she and her fellow students Katelyne Kuzio and Jessa Garcia set out to share the story of how colonization has created the vulnerable circumstances Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) have found themselves in.
Sharing digital stories
See the student work that is part of the proceedings for the 2019 Spirit Bear Dialogues, including the Stolen Sisters digital story.
“I've seen vulnerable life circumstances in my own family and have a bit of a personal understanding of how important it is to change the social perceptions that really hurt our women – our life givers,” she says. “These are things we need to talk about because when we understand, we can do better.”
The digital story, which Jade presented at Student Research Day, is the perfect illustration of the type of learning that happens in this dialogue, says Leslie.
The Spirit Bear Dialogues will continue in a new way, beginning in Fall 2019 when kihêw waciston, the university’s Indigenous centre, will lead the series of Indigenous education focused forums and events throughout the year.
“The two years we’ve spent exploring Indigenous topics as part of the Interdisciplinary Dialogue have been incredibly valuable,” says Terri Suntjens, director of Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan. “The dialogue is shifting focus, but our university’s commitment to building respectful community relationships, providing cultural support to our Indigenous students, and reimagining the way we deliver curriculum to incorporate Indigenous history, culture and ways of knowing will not waver.”
Why we do land acknowledgments
“In the design classes where I teach and learn, we take turns reading MacEwan’s land acknowledgement. We are learning and feeling our way through these words."