Learning together

June 21, 2018 | Society

Students and faculty continue on the journey to reconciliation


A quilt made by second-year Social Work students honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Each patch includes a sealed letter from a student with messages of remembrance.

Faint notes of buffalo grass, cedar and sweetgrass linger – remnants of an early morning pipe ceremony centred on a quilt made by social work students. Created to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, the quilt hangs in the background as Dr. James Makosis speaks about reconciliation.

The family doctor (and former MacEwan University student) who practices in the Kinokamasihk (Kehewin Cree Nation) and Maskêhkosihk (Enoch Cree Nation), called the people gathered at the April event to “remember our treaty relationship to each other and to live in ways that honour that.”

It was a fitting way to wrap up – but not close – a months-long conversation that engaged students and faculty from 11 courses that participated in the Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Journey to Reconciliation.

A follow up to a successful 2017 pilot project that focused on the global refugee crisis, the 2018 dialogue brought students together for educational forums, online discussions, a pre-screening of the feature film of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, and wrapped up with student presentations and the address from Dr. Makosis at a celebration-of-learning symposium.

These are things our students want to know about, and they are things we must keep allowing them to learn.
—Dr. Jack Robinson

“Students really felt like they were learning something important,” says Dr. Jack Robinson, whose Canadian literature class participated in the dialogue. “That’s good, but it’s also unfortunate because these issues should not be news to any of us. Many students hadn’t heard about residential schools. They didn’t really know much about the whole colonial system and its impacts, or the movement toward reconciliation. These are things our students want to know about, and they are things we must keep allowing them to learn.”

Listening to Indigenous scholars, knowledge keepers and elders speak, following Indigenous protocols, having a sometimes very emotional reaction and then talking about it immediately after were all part of encountering a different culture in a very immediate way, says Jack. “It was intellectual, it was experiential and it was very profound.” 

Interdisciplinary Dialogue faculty members and staff gather for a sweat lodge in May, where they requested a Cree name for the project – ahcâhk maskwa osihcikêwina or wâskahikan, ᐊᐦᒑᐦᐠ ᒪᐢᑲᐧ ᐅᓯᐦᒋᑫᐃᐧᓂ ᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ, Spirit Bear Creations/Lodge. The “spirit” element illustrates the connection Indigenous peoples have to the Creator and ancestors in the spirit world, and “muskwa/bear” refers to the four paw prints of a bear, representing honestly, sharing, determination and kindness that should guide the project’s work.
Faculty members gathered in May to take part in a river valley story walk with Dr. Dwayne Donald from the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta to learn more about the significance of the city’s natural spaces.
Indigenous Knowledge Keeper Roxanne Tootoosis plays a social justice version of the Game of Life, created by MacEwan’s Child and Youth Care students, at the Celebration of Learning event in April..
Faculty members Dr. Ahna Berikoff from Child and Youth Care (left), and Dr. Carole Charette from Design Studies (right), discuss an interactive learning tool called “A Journey of Understanding” with Child and Youth Care student Robyn Graham, at the Celebration of Learning.
Mackenzie Brown (pictured) and her fellow fourth-year Bachelor of Child and Youth Care student, Luciann CrazyBoy, helped lead a blanket exercise in January 2018 to kick off the 2018 Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Truth and Reconciliation.
Faculty members participating in the dialogue (several of whom appear above, gathered on the day of the river walk and sweat lodge) – from programs as diverse as English, anthropology, design studies and social work – support each other with Indigenizing assignments or other course content and work closely with kihêw waciston, the university’s Indigenous centre.
Mikhayla Patterson, a recent Social Work diploma graduate, points out the individual patches created by students in her program. Each student at was given a piece of felt, a red envelope, and a card with a photo of a woman, her name, age and when she disappeared. Students wrote sealed letters to each of the women, with messages of remembrance. The patches were then sewn onto banners, one of which was dedicated at the Interdisciplinary Dialogue’s Celebration of Learning.


Perhaps the most profound moments of all came after the Colten Boushie verdict was announced on February 9 – four days before the dialogue’s second education forum. The organizing committee quickly changed gears, asking prominent First Nations lawyer Sharon Venne to instead speak to the verdict as an outcome of colonization when addressing the forum’s more than 180 attendees.

It was an example, not only of the commitment of the organizing committee’s members, but of the importance of providing a platform for the university community to come together in critical moments to discuss and reflect.

That togetherness – the very particular kind of learning and understanding that comes from being with and talking to other people – is an important part of the experience, says English student Chenoa Roberts.

“We ended the dialogue with a healing circle after the celebration of the learning event in April,” says the fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student who presented a paper on Katherine Vermet's The Break. “We discussed everything we went through as part of this dialogue, and how our views and our lives have changed by opening our eyes to the Canada around us.”

Seeing eyes opening in the way Chenoa describes is exactly what Roxanne Tootoosis, the university’s Indigenous knowledge keeper and a member of the Interdisciplinary Dialogue organizing committee, was hoping for.

“I never thought in my lifetime that we would be having these conversations, as difficult as they may be,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do, but this gives me hope. Our faculty and students are keen and passionate about elevating awareness, recognizing the spiritual significance of everything we do and grounding everything in ceremony. We’re practicing Indigenous protocol, raising flags, making land acknowledgments and so much more. It’s a journey that benefits all of us.”

That journey will continue in the 2018/19 academic year. While the dialogue has found a home within the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity, the theme will remain the same.

“It would be easy to say that we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, let’s move beyond that and talk about how we can reconcile,” says Irfan Chaudhry, director of the university’s Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity. “But this is a conversation we need to continue having. What are the truths around barriers that Indigenous community members face, including here at MacEwan? How can we address those barriers in a way that is meaningful and ties to the TRC’s calls to action? That’s where the human rights lens fits – the connection to building human rights champions around the university who can help create more inclusive spaces for everyone.”

In practice: Blending biomedical and Cree perspectives

Leslie Dawson’s third-year medical anthropology class looks at the wellbeing of Indigenous people around the world and the impact of colonization, so the dialogue was the perfect complement to her student’s learning.

“It’s one thing to read about cross-cultural perspectives on health and wellbeing in different parts of the world,” says Leslie. “But it is something quite different to hear someone like Dr. Makosis share how he blends biomedical and Cree perspectives in his practice. His perspectives – and others we encountered in the interdisciplinary Dialogue – allowed us to explore the concepts and ideas we were had discussed in class and in readings, in a very different way.”

And the discussions didn’t end when students left the classroom.

“We hoped that this dialogue would create new conversations, and many students said that was exactly what it did,” says Leslie. “That they were sharing the things they learned at the educational forums with their family and friends.”

See some of the students’ work in the 2018 edition of the Interdisciplinary Dialogue Student Conference Proceedings. 

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