Program signals new era of inclusivity for N.S. aboriginals: elder
Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia
Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, January 10, 2016 7:08PM AST
HALIFAX -- The coordinator of a program at Halifax's Dalhousie University that connects aboriginal elders with students says the initiative signals a new era of inclusivity for indigenous people in the region.
Geri Musqua-LeBlanc, head of the university's Elders in Residence program, said the elders support students by providing counselling and traditional cultural rituals such as smudging, a purification ceremony that involves burning herbs like sage and sweet grass.
"We're there to support the students and encourage them, as their grandmothers and grandfathers would," said Musqua-LeBlanc, who is originally from the Nakawe nation in Saskatchewan. "A lot of them are away from home and they miss home. They miss their ceremonies, so we're there to provide that for them.
"My personal belief is that I have a sacred responsibility to pass down traditional indigenous knowledge to the younger generation."
Musqua-LeBlanc said aboriginal people have long endured institutional racism in the province. However the public is beginning to understand and accept the historical atrocities committed against aboriginal people in Canada, such as the residential schools where many endured physical and sexual abuse, she said.
"Finally, our story is coming out to the public," said Musqua-LeBlanc in a recent interview. "There's a change in the climate of the way indigenous people are accepted... and I'm optimistic. We're being accepted, we're being included and our stories are out there."
Earlier this year, Dalhousie reached out to the nearby Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre about establishing a program that connects aboriginal elders with students at the school, said Musqua-LeBlanc. She said the elders were then given free rein in developing the program and its mandate.
The program launched last month and there are five elders involved: Musqua-LeBlanc, Diana Hirtle, Muriel Rosevere, Billy Lewis, Doug Knockwood and Deb Eisan.
Dylan Letendre, an undergraduate student studying International Development and Economics, said the program offers supports that he would normally receive at home more than 4,000 kilometres away in Prince Albert, Sask.
"Moving to the East Coast from the Prairies, you're not only going to a place that geographically removed, but you're also leaving your support networks behind," said Letendre, who is Metis.
"I can't go to university and expect my culture to not have an impact on my experience. When my culture isn't represented and my support networks aren't there, I struggle... My culture is available to me here and not only that, the student body around me has the opportunity to learn about my culture."
The 29-year-old man said he agrees with Musqua-LeBlanc that the program is a positive step towards the inclusivity in the region, but he said more could be done to encourage people outside of the aboriginal community to participate in the culture.
"Having programs available for aboriginal students as absolutely necessary, but what we need is for the non-aboriginal community to be able to feel comfortable accessing those resources as well and understanding their role in our community," said Letendre.
A spokeswoman for Dalhousie said the exact number of aboriginal students at the school isn't known because students decide whether to identify as aboriginal on their admissions applications. Lindsay Dowling said 429 students self-identified as aboriginal in 2015, up from 293 four years ago.
Dalhousie's website says 18,500 students are enrolled at the university.