Nipissing University’s Bold Educational Experiment in Listening

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[Note: This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of the Nipissing Review Magazine.]

THE WET APRIL snow arrives with the AFN National Chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, whose plane touched down in North Bay an hour ago. He sits in the restaurant, noting the wind over Delaney Bay and joking with his wife Nancy about the weather they’d left behind, in British Columbia. The pickerel arrives, and the conversation turns to a storm of another sort, occasioned a week earlier by a letter published in the Nanaimo Daily News.

The history of First Nations, claimed the letter’s author, is notable only for underachievement. “Turn off the taps. Do away with this ‘traditional use’ and ‘cultural’ nonsense. Educate their children to become modern citizens.” It just shows the ignorance and the misconceptions that still exist, says the National Chief. How appropriate, then, that his next stop is Nipissing University, where later in the day he’ll participate in the Ka Na Ta Conversations— advertised as a “series of lectures by prominent leaders that are designed to inspire and encourage new conversations among all Canadians through embracing an Indigenous worldview.”


When a parent can come to school in the morning and drop off her child here at the lounge, then the child goes off to science camp while mom does her school work, and at the end of the day they come back together — what a good message this is from the university. I wish that people would just come, just one day, set up some couches down the hall and watch what’s happening between eight and eight forty-five, and three to three forty-five. You may get a different idea of who Aboriginal people are, of what this unit does.

– Laurie McLaren, Executive Director, Nipissing’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives.

The Omushkegowuk call it Omushkego Etuskanaysewin, or the culture and language of the Cree. It is also the name of a course developed at Nipissing University. On this and the following day, political leaders, scholars, educators and students have been assembled for a public dialogue — the Ka Na Ta Conversations — followed by a think-tank in the Harris Learning Library, titled “Advancing Change in Aboriginal Education: a national conversation.” An enormous topic, into whose scope will be drawn Canada’s colonial history, the contrasts of indigenous and non-indigenous worldviews, Idle No More, the Crown-First Nations relationship, treaties, the aspirations of aboriginal communities, the Indian Act, and the Indian residential school system.

Discussions about indigenous education have been occurring at this small, liberal arts university — the gateway to the north — since the late Dean of Education, Alan Johnson, began a weekly evening “Study Group on the Education of Native Canadians” in the 1980s. Over three decades, a productive relationship has been forged between the institution and the First Nations communities that it serves. In 1991, the NDP government of Bob Rae launched the Aboriginal Education and Training Strategy (AETS), whose goals were to increase participation rates, cultural sensitivity and involvement in institutional governance.

In 1993 AETS funding helped to establish the Nipissing University Aboriginal Council on Education, or NUACE, an advisory group which serves a crucial role in university governance. (NUACE consists of majority representation from First Nation communities, as well as additional members including students, faculty, an Elder, and Nipissing University senior administrators who serve as permanent ex-officio members.) In the beginning, Nipissing was uncertain how this new body would fit into the governance of the institution, but over time it was accorded a central role in guiding programs related to aboriginal people. Alan Johnson became Nipissing’s first Dean of Education, and in partnership with committed and highly engaged First Nations leaders like Chief Marianna Couchie, the first of a series of aboriginal initiatives — the Aboriginal Teacher Certification Program (which had its first graduation in June of 1991) — was developed.

At the time Nipissing received its charter, in 1992, the Native Classroom Assistant Program was transferred from Laurentian. Dr. Gerald Laronde became Principal of Aboriginal Programs, and Terry Dokis was hired to teach Native Studies and an optional native education course. Professor Dokis set himself to the task of developing the impressive set of Native Studies courses today offered at Nipissing University. Other Nipissing veterans like Karen McClain and Debbie Mcleod were important individuals in the development of the university’s resources. In more recent years, the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives has benefited from the contributions of people like Muriel Sawyer, an award-winning teacher of Anishinaabemowin who has long been associated with Nbissiing Secondary School — a school run by Nipissing First Nation. Dr. José Barreiro, of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, has recently engaged with Nipissing to offer scholarly guidance for the university’s Hemispheric Indigenous Experience Program, taking the institution’s relationship building to an international level.

Nipissing University today offers a wide range of academic, personal and cultural supports as well as the Aboriginal Advantage Program, all coordinated through the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives. At each step of the way First Nations have been involved in Nipissing’s work, principally through NUACE. The work of relationship building, as even the preceding cursory overview reveals, is time intensive. There are no effective shortcuts in the work of building trust and consensus. “There is no recipe book,” says Laurie McLaren, the Executive Director of Nipissing’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives and a member of the Wolf Lake First Nation. But as Nipissing professor Dr. John Long says, “the steady hand of Laurie McLaren has been really key.” Aboriginal programs and services at Nipissing “really started to take off,” he says, when McLaren (herself a Nipissing University alumna, with both a B.A. and B.Ed.) arrived in 2000. The office began as a one-room crisis intervention centre, as McLaren puts it, developing within a few years into a suite of support services for aboriginal students and their families. “We developed responsive programming — just listening,” she says.

Listening to the students, McLaren soon realized they would benefit from a community within the university. Many were young mothers, and so their success was closely tied to the success of their children. Students were leaving their programs because their children were struggling. Perhaps they didn’t have English as a first, or even second language. Perhaps cultural barriers were involved. There were a number of obstacles that might be at the root of an individual’s struggles. Whatever the issue, if the kids weren’t doing well then the moms would go back home. From simple observations like this, the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives began developing Nipissing’s support programs.

One program followed another: a tutoring program for kindergarten to grade six, a high school mentorship program. A career symposium outreach. Each became, in McLaren’s words, an opportunity to build relationships. “The kids who are being tutored become aware; they want to come to the career symposium days. The high school mentorship program’s aboriginal student leaders get the kids thinking, ‘I’m Ojibwe, and I see an Ojibwe undergraduate student leading my tutoring program. I’m from Wikwemikong, he’s from Wikwemikong. I can do that too.’ One thing builds on another. You go to another level of the relationship.”


“What was transferred to First Nations was an inadequate education system with inadequate resources,” concludes the former Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Ovide Mercredi.


A pivotal moment arrived when the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives was placed directly under the office of the President and was provided multi-year funding from the province. No longer was McLaren consigned to temporary spaces and soft funds. Additional resources came through private philanthropy, such as Seymour Schulich’s benefaction providing funds for program enhancements. The Office of Aboriginal Initiatives’ dedicated team now had a permanent home within the university, at the heart of which is the student lounge Enji giigdoyang — “where we come to meet, discuss and talk about things.” Her position of Executive Director is now part of the institution’s senior management, reporting directly to the top.

In 2012 this top spot was occupied by the new Nipissing President Dr. Mike DeGagné, an Ojibwe from Northwestern Ontario who since 1998 had been the Executive Director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. These developments together signaled the university’s unambiguous commitment to Aboriginal education. “Mike’s presence will impact university education in Canada,” says McLaren. “He’s an indigenous president and a scholar. He knows the issues, and he understands the impacts of residential schools.” Keenly interested in promoting the educational success of aboriginal students, Dr. DeGagné submitted a 2002 Michigan State University Ph.D. dissertation on “The Experience of Successful First Nation Students in Canadian Postsecondary Education.”

“What was transferred to First Nations was an inadequate education system with inadequate resources,” concludes the former Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Ovide Mercredi. Control of Aboriginal education, not for its own sake but to foster educational supports equal to community aspirations, is the objective of indigenous people today. “It goes back to the 1970s and the Assembly of First Nations’ report Indian Control of Indian Education,” notes the Nipissing President. “The problem there is that we’ve left off a piece, which is Indian control of Indian education because we want better outcomes. That’s an important addition right now when we speak to politicians and others in administration. We say we want control of our education, and they say that’s because you guys just want to be in control. It’s this notion that we want to dumb down the system or somehow hobble it — lower the standards for our own kids to give them more advantages. And I don’t see any of that. We want better outcomes. We want to do things differently.”

Interest in this bigger picture, where things are done differently, is the air these days. Laurie McLaren is in a reflective mood. She’s excited. “Up until now,” she says, “the only thing I wasn’t doing was giving birth to these students.” And while she continues to recruit, provide direct services, give class presentations, assist faculty and provide one-on-one cultural awareness support, her focus has been shifting since July, when the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives hired a second-in-command to take over some of the day-to-day responsibilities. Her strategic thinking will help put in place the pieces that will keep the work going. Looking ahead, she recalls that “over the last five hundred years, our ancestors had a lot of reasons to stop walking. But they didn’t.”

If Statistics Canada is correct, people identifying themselves as aboriginal are not an endangered species. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, the First Nations’ population is young and growing at a pace far above the Canadian average. In 2011, there were 392,105 aboriginal children aged fourteen and under in Canada, representing twenty-eight percent of the total aboriginal population and seven percent of all children in Canada. Another 254,515 aboriginal youth were between fifteen and twenty-four (18.2% of the total), meaning that nearly half of the aboriginal population is now under twenty-four. (For the non-aboriginal population, this number is 29.4%.) In 2011 there were twenty percent more aboriginal people in Canada than five years earlier, a growth rate four times that of the non-aboriginal population. The trend could not be more clear.

There are also more aboriginal people in post-secondary education than ever before. Forty-eight percent had a postsecondary qualification in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. Yet the increase in aboriginal post-secondary enrolment has not kept up with population growth, resulting in a net proportional decline of young people entering higher education. High school drop-out, unemployment and poverty rates remain discouragingly high, as do the rates of incarceration and disease. The gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal health and education status is wide. (“There isn’t enough linkage between the health of our people and the education of our people,” notes Commissioner George Lafond, of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner for Saskatchewan. “Health is the silent partner of education.”) In 1981, two percent of the aboriginal population had a university degree, compared with eight percent of the non-aboriginal population. Twenty-five years later, aboriginal people had not yet caught up to the level attained by non-aboriginal people in 1981: the percentages with a university degree were 7.7 and 23.4, respectively. We live in a time of great opportunity but also of extraordinary challenges.

The Prime Minister in June 2008 apologized for Canada’s Indian Residential School System, and committed Canada to “forging a new relationship” based upon mutual respect and a shared desire to build “a stronger Canada for all of us.” Five years later, aboriginal leaders are still calling upon Ottawa to join them on the path leading to the realization of these ambitious sentiments. “We echo our Elders who decades ago began the call for First Nations control of First Nations education,” said National Chief Atleo, at the July 2012 AFN Annual General Assembly in Whitehorse. Citing the example of the Mi’kmaw Education Authority, he notes the “incredible success” of First Nations students who are graduating from high school at a rate near ninety percent — well exceeding the Nova Scotia standard. They are learners provisioned with twenty-first century skills, yet fully versed in their traditional teachings, language and culture. “This is what we all need to strive for,” he tells his audience. “And it is happening. But we need a new approach that makes these school systems and these young people not the exception, but our expectation.”

When the National Indian Brotherhood released its report Indian Control of Indian Education in 1972, Nipissing Professor John Long was in his words “a young white guy from Brampton with a bit of anthropology.” His search for a job took him to Moose Factory and a two-year contract which became a two-decade stay. Over the years he has given the topic of treaties a great deal of thought, researching and writing extensively on Treaty No 9. Life among the Omushkegowuk, or coastal James Bay Cree, was for him a privileged opportunity to see an all-Native provincial school board in action when such a thing was a rarity. Between 1997 and 2000 he worked in Kashechewan as a high school principal. These and other experiences deepened his interest in understanding how the indigenous people would have looked at the treaty from the basis of their language and their cultural history of interactions.

“What I’d like to see is treaty implementation,” he concludes. “And this is something that people are talking about across the country. I’d love to see federal and provincial governments working with aboriginal communities to actually implement the treaties in ways that support people’s views of self-reliance, education, housing and infrastructure — but really for their vision of their future in Canada.” Unfortunately, the treaties are poorly understood, even ill-understood, not only by the average citizen but by many of today’s political and educational leaders. John Long freely acknowledges his fellow Canadians’ lack of knowledge and understanding. “I think that a lot of people in Canada are where Pierre Trudeau was in 1969. ‘Why do we have treaties with one another?’” He sees the role of the university in general, and Nipissing in particular, as creating opportunities for discussion. “When the university privileges voices and holds things like the Ka Na Ta Conversations, inviting people to hear what aboriginal leaders are saying, it’s part of public education. We have this important role to help people become aware of the issues.” He notes with excitement Ontario’s new Teacher Education requirements, coming in 2015, which will ensure that all teacher programs promote, and all teachers gain, “knowledge of and appreciation for First Nations, Métis and Inuit traditions, cultures and perspectives.”

In many respects, Nipissing has led the way among Canada’s educational institutions in the decisive work of helping people become aware of the issues and of building trust-based relationships between First Nations people and the university. Lorraine Sutherland, an Eeyou (Cree) from the James Bay community of Attawapiskat, knows the classroom from every perspective. Currently a Master’s student in History, she spent several years as a teacher of grades two and five in her home community. “I was craving education,” she says. “I did a four-year degree in two and a-half years. I don’t think it would have been possible if I didn’t have the support of the faculty and the community that was growing in North Bay — people from my community and other communities like Fort Albany.” The programs offered by the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, she adds, “are very positive and have contributed to where I am today.”

Today Lorraine Sutherland is where the National Chief is: working to build the self-esteem of her people by drawing upon the inherent strengths of culture and language and knowledge of one’s identity and history:

When I started teaching, I went in with this idea that I was the authoritarian, the boss. Well guess what. When you teach like that, it doesn’t work. It was when I came here and did a Native Studies course with Terry Dokis that I was able to write about residential schools. It was through this paper that I realized that the way I was teaching wasn’t right. So I decided I’m not going to teach from this authoritarian perspective anymore. I’m going to teach our history, our knowledge. It’s about understanding that history, and knowing that these children coming into my classroom have baggage on their backs from their history. That really changed my perspective. History professors that had an open mind allowed me to write about stuff that I don’t know if people were allowed to write about.

Erin Dokis, a Trent University Master’s student and Nipissing alumna from Dokis First Nation, chooses her words with care. “The whole concept of allies is problematic. But there are a lot of people here who get it, ideally standing in solidarity with us but not leading: asking What can we do? but not defining what indigenous people need.” She is focusing her studies on what she calls “transition intervention.” This work issues from an enormous problem across First Nations communities — the many young people who leave their community to pursue higher education and who never return. These young aboriginal graduates contribute their knowledge, skills and experience to mainstream governments, businesses and organizations. Over time, First Nations are drained of their most valuable resource, their people. The causes of this drain are many, but the principal impediment is a cruel and self re-enforcing catch-22, the lack of work opportunity for graduates back home which is itself a product of the diaspora. “I was initially thinking of transitions out of university,” says Dokis. “But I’ve come to realize that what I’m in fact talking about is transitioning to somewhere, to being able to give back to the community.”

The theme of giving back to community is common among aboriginal students. At the April Nipissing think-tank, historian and professor Ken Coates observes that “there’s a question that almost all aboriginal students ask: “What should I do that will best help my community?” The definition of community might mean their own specific community. It might mean their cultural community. It might mean the First Nations as a whole. But it’s a question that they ask, and I’ve never had a non-aboriginal student ask that question.” Halting the brain drain and converting it to what the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business President and CEO, J. P. Gladu, calls “brain circulation” is a top priority.

“This idea of working with a community, this idea of trust, is more than an idea,” Laurie McLaren explains. “It’s the institution responding to how the community wants to work. It’s not a single person. This relationship began years and years ago. Speak to the many individuals who have contributed to Nipissing’s success and you’ll hear a consistent message: it’s about relationships that are rooted in mutual trust and respect. “It’s critical to me that students see themselves reflected in the institution,” says McLaren. “Let’s back up to the 1950s, when aboriginal children walked into residential schools. Could they speak their language? No, they would have been punished. Today at Nipissing University the most important message is that these learners are valued. Their culture is being valued, and their language is being valued. It’s being recognized as a strength now.”

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