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Improving the Indigenous post-secondary experience through storytelling

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 27, 2022

With an ever-increasing number of Indigenous post-secondary students, colleges and universities are developing inclusiveness initiatives to address systemic inequities. In Quebec, 25% of non-Indigenous people have university degrees, compared to 8% of Indigenous people.

Recognizing the power of stories, Susan Briscoe initiated the First Peoples’ Post-Secondary Storytelling Exchange (FPPSE) in 2015 at Dawson College, the province’s largest Cegep. Driven by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, it’s one of Dawson’s efforts to improve the experience and success of Indigenous students.

When colleague Michelle Smith took the lead after Briscoe became terminally ill, the project was collaborating with many partners, including Kahnawake Survival School, the First Nations Regional Adult Education Centre, John Abbott College, and Concordia and McGill universities. 

“We continued along the path that Susan laid out, talking with over 100 students, family members and Elders over five years,” said Smith, a Red River Métis educator and filmmaker. “It became a place of celebration and validation of the rich approaches to teaching and learning that are ongoing in communities and among created communities in urban areas where a lot of Indigenous students find themselves.”

Although formally a research project, Smith was mindful that “research” can be a loaded term in Indigenous communities and emphasized that the process was respectful, reciprocal and led to tangible change. Student co-researchers often facilitated the storytelling and data collection, developing interviewing and filmmaking skills along the way.

“It’s important to provide opportunities for capacity building whenever possible, so it was peers talking with peers,” explained Smith. “It was a healing space really – relationship building and having a space amongst Indigenous colleagues and students in these institutions that was safe. We cried together, we dealt with different challenges in our personal lives.”

In addition to talking circles and one-on-one storytelling exchanges, the FPPSE partnered with an organization called Our World, which brought together Indigenous professionals and emerging talent to create over a dozen films over the course of workshops held in Kahnawake, Montreal and Kangiqsujuaq (Nunavik). 

While many of the resulting works have screened at film festivals around the world, dozens of videos of participants’ stories can be found on the FPPSE website. Launched in February 2021, it presents recommendations for academic institutions along with Cree, Inuit and Kanien’kehá:ka visions of the future.

“We wanted to honour the uniqueness of each story, but we did also go through a process where we identified common themes,” Smith said. “Many Cree students talked about feeling unprepared for college studies. Obviously, homesickness, being away from the land, was a big one. There were also common experiences around racism in the classroom and being targeted to teach the whole classroom about Indigenous stuff.”

The website provides numerous resources for teachers, families and students arriving in the city. The team continues to present its findings at international conferences, distribute videos and booklets to classrooms, and share results with communities to develop new education offerings.  

A section devoted to Cree voices identifies not only challenges and barriers but also sources of strength and transformation. Current and former students Angela Watts, Mary Shem, Flora Weistche, Alexandrea Matthews and Darryl Diamond candidly discuss their experiences struggling with culture shock and finding support from their adopted communities.

“Success is taking the best form of education you’re receiving and merging it with the wisdom of your ancestors,” suggested Diamond, who now works with the Cree School Board’s post-secondary student services. 

Diamond noted Indigenous students often feel they must leave who they are at the door when they arrive at college or university. In addition to the pressures of being away from home, these classrooms aren’t always the most culturally sensitive spaces for confronting heavy subjects like residential schools, which some are learning about for the first time.

“There are not many things in this world as emotionally rattling, unsettling and painful as when you walk in a room full of people where there’s a place for everybody but not for you,” said FPPSE research assistant Kahnawa’kehró:non Kahawihson Horne during the website launch. “I would like to do my part to fix that, to make a place for Indigenous people at the table.” 

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.