When Ethan Thomas arrived at Western, he felt alone and out of place. He missed his family and friends, longing for the ceremonies he embraced growing up in Six Nations of the Grand River territory.
“It was a culture shock and a big change moving from the reserve to London,” Thomas said. “I had never even been on a bus.”
His first year brought its share of adversity. His mother underwent major surgery. He lost loved ones.
“It left me dealing with a lot of mental-health issues, and that affected my academics,” he said. “Also, just being away from home, how that affects Indigenous people can be very difficult.”
But the contacts he made as a First Nations Studies undergrad and through the Indigenous Student Centre allowed Thomas to reconnect with his culture and passion for Indigenous knowledge.
“I am really grateful for the Circles of Support program where students get to know one another and support each other if they need help. The cultural workshops with guest speakers talking about traditional teachings and protocols were also really helpful,” he said. “When you don’t have access to that, it puts you out of whack.”
On June 19, Thomas will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020.
His understanding and empathy allowed him to become an inclusive leader at Western and back home.
“Ethan was very good at gently creating a feeling of community and including others,” said Amanda Myers, Director of the Indigenous Student Centre in the Office of Indigenous Initiatives. “He often did that through food.”
Myers has known Thomas since his first year, watching him rise to become a counsellor and coordinator of Mini University, a summer program for Indigenous youth offered through her office.
“Our Mini U staff team come with different connections to their identity. Some come with strong links and know each other. Others come with none of that. It can be very disconnecting and disheartening.”
It was often Thomas who helped bridge that gap in the Indigenous Student Centre kitchen, making scone dogs (wieners wrapped in bannock, a traditional flatbread).
“He would make sure we had all the ingredients and would just start cooking. He never made a big formality around it. He was just really good at seeing the need and pulling people together,” Myers said.
For the Mini U campers, Thomas, BA’18 (First Nations Studies), BEd’20, served as an aspiring role model.
“It’s important to give Indigenous youth the chance to see what university would be like and expose them to the academics,” Thomas said. “I enjoyed showing them the different areas of study and places like the Rec Centre and the Cronyn Observatory. They were able to observe Mars, which was really cool.”
Thomas also imparted traditional Indigenous knowledge, something he looks forward to doing more widely as a teacher, recognizing the need for more Indigenous content in the Ontario curriculum.
“I believe understanding each other is better for all of us,” he said.
His passion for learning and sharing Indigenous dialects allowed him to conduct research for the Six Nations Language Commission, helping determine how many speakers of his territory’s languages remain.
Thomas’ commitment to language revitalization, and his community service running youth programs earned him the Haudenosaunee Recognition Award in 2019. But you won’t hear a lot about that from Thomas, who’s not one to talk a lot about his accomplishments.
The humility he carries is in practice with the teachings of the longhouse, Myers explained.
“When I first met Ethan, he was quite shy,” she said.
While at Western Education, after completing a teaching practicum at Kettle Point, Ont., he was reaching out to Myers with a number of thoughts on helping the Indigenous Student Centre as his alternative field placement.
“His ideas reflected his leadership and his mentorship,” Myers said. “His willingness to stand up for traditional knowledge is very refreshing. That’s what we need to see in the people we are sending back to our communities.”