Aboriginal education graduates make history


Standing as one of 15 graduates of the master of education program focusing on leadership in First Nations schools, Anika Altiman beams with pride for her community.



“Today is big accomplishment, not only for myself, but as a community,” she says.


On June 12, what may be the largest number of aboriginal students ever to graduate en masse from a master’s program at a Canadian university walked across the stage during the University of Western Ontario’s 293rd convocation ceremony.



Of 15 graduates, nine are First Nations, one is Inuk and one is Métis. 



As teachers and administrators working in or around First Nations communities completed the requirements program, which included additional components of indigenous knowledge and research methods. The program started in 2007 and classes were held at Walpole Island and online over the past two years.



“It’s an accomplishment for our community to develop this partnership (with Western) and to successfully get through it,” says Altiman. “It’s really nice to maintain a 100 per cent success rate.”


When Ron Richmond was hired by the Walpole Island Board of Education as principal of the elementary school, he immediately saw a need for professional development programs and leadership in education.



“This was my vision starting in 2004 when I came to Walpole and I found out how standalone it was,” he says. “When I came there I realized there were no program directors, no superintendents, not a director of education. It was just me.”


Richmond had previously worked for the Lambton-Kent District School Board for 24 years.



Seeing his dreams realized with all 15 students completing the program has left Richmond wanting more – he hopes graduates will use their knowledge to educate others working in First Nations communities.



Among those new educational leaders is Richmond’s daughter, Janette, who teaches Ojibwa at nearby Wallaceburg District High School. She plans to use strategies learned in the program to promote First Nations culture and traditions in the classroom.


Russ Blackbird has been teaching at the elementary school at Walpole Island for eight years. For him, the program helped reinforce a sense of community.


“Our whole program was about family,” says Blackbird. “Everybody relied on each other and supported each other throughout the program.” 



The students’ final research projects have been published in a book, titled The Gifts Within: Carrying Each Other Forward in Aboriginal Education.


Rebecca Coulter, a Faculty of Education professor who spearheaded the program, says the success of the first graduating class speaks to the “model partnership” forged between the university and Walpole Island First Nation.



“There was a great deal of support in the community for this program,” she says. “It’s set in motion this kind of understanding about higher degrees – graduate degrees – being possible and the different ways we might work as a university with communities to offer graduate-level programming, as well as undergraduate level programming.”



Preparations are being made for a new cohort next July.


Other program graduates include Craig Bunda, Linda Classens, Catherine Hampshire, Joann Henry, Darlene Holmes, Jessica Kicknosway, Kevin Lamure, Muriel Sampson, John Snake, Margaret Tucker, Alicia Whiteye, and Patricia Whiteye.


Offering inspiration to about  6,500 newly conferred graduates, 10 honorary degree recipients provided advice for achieving success and happiness in life, many promoting the importance of community activism.


Native American singer/songwriting Buffy Sainte-Marie and notable Canadian businesswoman Catherine Williams encouraged graduates to take risks and follow their passions.



Former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci and philanthropist Joseph Rotman emphasized the many lessons that can be learned from a university education.


“A university degree is not so much a ticket to earn a living, as it is a passport to learn how to live,” says Iacobucci.



Other recipients were: Roy Ernst, founder of New Horizons International Music Association; former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow; Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier; founding and long-serving Dean of Western’s Faculty of Dentistry (1965-82) Wesley Dunn; advocate for rural medicine and Memorial University Dean of Medicine Dr. James Rourke, and leading Canadian scientist Paul Corkum.