Making Indigenous services part of community’s fabric

You can say it has always been at the heart of Candace Brunette’s academic and professional lives.

“I have a lot of diverse experiences, but the centre has always remained working with Aboriginal communities. And it has evolved, over the last decade, to focus in on Aboriginal education,” said Brunette, who recently joined Western as its new Indigenous services coordinator.

A Mushkego Cree, Brunette comes to Western from the Thames Valley District School Board, where she worked as its first-ever Aboriginal education advisor. While there, she established the First Nations Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Student Achievement Committee as well as a FNMI Parent Involvement Committee. She was instrumental in strengthening the board’s relationships with local FNMI communities.

While pursuing a degree in Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto, Brunette also worked in the banking sector as a diversity and planning liaison, recruiting and retaining Aboriginal employees. Shortly after, she took a post as a recruitment officer with the First Nations House at the university, later completing an MA in Education, focusing on Aboriginal arts and community, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“The No. 1 challenge when working with Aboriginal people is to develop trust. For very real and justified reasons, there’s a lack of trust among many, not all, Aboriginal communities and people. You need to start with developing that relationship and that’s getting people at the table. Sometimes, that means just hearing where people are coming form and hearing the needs and priorities and concerns of community members,” Brunette explained.

“There are many responsibilities that boards of education have, like universities, in closing the gap in Aboriginal student achievement, in developing relationships with aboriginal communities, engaging aboriginal communities and building confidence,” she added.

Since 2010, there has been a 38.2 per cent increase in Indigenous students at Western; since 2005, that number has been 115 per cent. Today, there are 387 Indigenous students enrolled at the university, and, according to Gail Hutchinson, director of the Student Development Centre, Western is above the provincial average in Indigenous student enrollment.

At Western, Brunette said, a strong foundation has been laid in connecting with FNMI students and communities, providing space and developing outreach programs. She is thrilled to take up the torch and continue the work, she said.

Brunette’s position came into existence nearly 20 years ago, charged with the responsibility of increasing the Indigenous population at Western and increasing awareness of the culture of Canada and its Indigenous people, Hutchinson explained. Since 1995, the post evolved from a half-time position with an office to a full-time position in a student-oriented cultural centre on campus, with various faculties, groups, outreach programs and initiatives working to increase and support the Indigenous population in the campus community.

“I just see that there’s a lot of potential for transformation and bringing Indigenous knowledge and consciousness to the context of academe. Academe is all about furthering our knowledge as people and I feel very strongly and believe that Indigenous knowledge has a lot to contribute to our pool of knowledge. To be part of that movement is really exciting to me. There’s a lot to build on,” Brunette noted.

Her next steps include establishing herself as the coordinator with the local community and other stakeholders as well as working with the community to determine a vision.

“We, as an educational institution, have a responsibility to ensure that Indigenous students, staff and faculty have a voice, but more than that, that all students, staff and faculty understand our shared Canadian history, understand Indigenous knowledge and the contributions it can make to major issues of contemporary society,” Brunette said.

“It’s important for Indigenous students to have a safe space, to come to feel like they belong in this big institution and to seek cultural teachings and connect with the community; that’s incredibly important to recruitment, retention and advancement,” she continued.

Western has a responsibility to engage, Brunette continued, adding she hopes the university will continue to showcase its commitment to engaging with and supporting Aboriginal students and the community on campus.

“Commitment needs to happen at the highest level in our strategic plan in order for our faculties and different services across the institution to see it as a priority. I know recruitment and retention were listed as priorities, but we need to be focusing on graduate students, we need to be hiring and transforming our curriculum,” she said. “… When we look at internationalization, I see a huge opportunity to engage with that. We talk about this international focus, but why not be considering how indigenous knowledge can support us in that?”

Brunette looks forward to working with faculties and departments to support the growing representation, retention and success of Aboriginal learners and Indigenizing learning environments to be more responsive to Indigenous knowledge, communities and students.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” she said.