Aboriginal education program offers content “about our people”

Jessica Hill choked up and could barely voice how much it means to her – and it’s only the first week of classes for the Leadership in Aboriginal Education program.

“I always thought when I retired I would go back and work within the community,” says the member of Oneida Nation of the Thames, wiping away tears. “The course has really reinforced that within me.”

Hill, a Western alumna who currently teaches native studies in the Thames Valley School Board, is one of 15 students enrolled in the second cohort of the unique program in The University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Education.

The diverse group ranges in age and profession, and represents six First Nations communities, as well as includes non-aboriginal participants. The students will complete the course in spring 2013.

The program was launched in 2007 and classes were held at Walpole Island. It was designed to help prepare students for leadership roles within their schools and communities, and examine policy and practice in First Nations’ education. The first cohort of 15 students graduated in 2009.

For Hill, the course is deeply personal, exploring issues related to aboriginal education. The classes are mainly held at Kettle & Stony Point First Nation, which students say takes the ‘institution’ out of the program and reinforces the program “is all about our people,” Hill says.

“I’m really amazed by the impact it’s had. In two years, I can’t even fathom what it is going to be like.”

A residential school existed in Starr McGahey-Albert’s community of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. Even though the school no longer exists, McGahey-Albert, who is the local education co-ordinator, still sees residual effects on the community.

“The different things we’ve discussed, I realize the impact that it has had on education in our community and what a tough job we have ahead of us to let go of that,” she says. “As a result, I think it’s played a detrimental role in regards to our language and culture.”

The program has reinvigorated a passion in Michelle Brown, an occasional teacher at Thames Secondary School, which has a large First Nation population.

“Looking at my future and the prospects of teaching … I was contemplating getting out of teaching altogether because it is just so hard to get a teaching job these days,” she says, adding the program is “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Similarly, Jake Taylor, who works in youth outreach at Western’s Indigenous Services, sees the program as an opportunity to explore his career options and build skills in teaching First Nation youth.

“Having a community-based program is really important,” says Rebecca Coulter, professor in the Faculty of Education. “The program is more intense because they not only learn about provincial issues and policies, they are also addressing First Nations content and content with deep personal meaning.”

Coulter points to the success of graduates from the first cohort, many currently working in leadership positions, as evidence of its success. The program also presents a learning opportunity for Coulter, who says she has “so much to gain from the experience.”

Among the changes to the program has been the addition of Faculty of Education professor Brent Debassige, who shares his own experiences in the classroom discussions, as well as brings relationships and expertise in aboriginal education.
Holding the courses in Kettle & Stony Point has been transformative and has allowed students to gain ownership of the learning material, Debassige says.

“Being a Ojibwa person and having similar experiences to some of the students in the class and bringing that to bear on the content and different exchanges we have in the classrooms are different, interesting things I bring,” he says.