Three Indigenous students will be the first recipients of Western’s new National Indigenous Scholarships for the 2021-22 academic year.
Established last year, the scholarships are part of the university’s expanded investment in Indigenous recruitment and financial aid. Awarded annually to three Indigenous students, the scholarships recognize academic excellence and previous or intended contributions toward Indigenous communities.
Each student receives $50,000 each ($20,000 for year one, and $10,000 annually thereafter for up to three years).
The 2021-22 National Indigenous Scholarship recipients and their faculties are: Nicholas Keller, Social Science, Ojibway from Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong Territory; Delainey Mattern, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Métis, Sherwood Park, AB & Fort Smith Settlement, NWT; and Isabel Savard, Social Science, Naicatchewein First Nation
Against the odds
Nicholas Keller learned from an early age that life would not be easy as an Indigenous person.
In a spring 2020 post on social media, he shared, “… experiences that I went through used to hurt, but instead of letting them drag me down, I let them be my motivation, to hopefully one day, be able to help my people.”
A few months later, he stepped into his role as the 2020-21 Indigenous trustee of the Thames Valley District School Board in London, Ont.
“I am really grateful for that experience,” Keller said. “It helped me grow and develop skills, not just in public speaking, but in speaking out and going against the odds at times. Sometimes the things I had to say were challenging and new for people within the school board to hear.”
Keller also served as co-chair of the Indigenous relations working group of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. In support of the Calls to Action for reconciliation, the position saw him educate peers on the barriers Indigenous students face.
One of his proud accomplishments over the past year was helping to create the school board’s Indigenous student advisory council.
“It brings Indigenous students, elders and knowledge keepers within the board together to help ensure Indigenous students have a safe place to learn and connect with their culture,” he said.
He knows the value of connecting firsthand, having done so with his home community on Walpole Island First Nation, through sport. One of his fondest memories was taking part in the Little Native Hockey League tournament each year.
“There would be over 200 teams from all over Ontario,” Keller said. “Meeting other Indigenous Peoples through that tournament gave me a sense of belonging.”
More recently, Keller took part in the 2020 Native Volleyball Invitational, where he qualified to be part of Team Ontario and compete at the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax in 2023.
Keller sees education as “a direct route to helping Indigenous Peoples,” with the scholarship providing the motivation to pursue his undergraduate degree and move toward his long-term goal.
“I want to become a family doctor for Indigenous Peoples,” he said. “My family has experienced mistreatment through non-Indigenous doctors. I would like to provide a safe space for Indigenous Peoples to be treated and to also motivate others.”
Rediscovering Indigenous roots
It was only four years ago that Delainey Mattern discovered her Métis roots.
It was a secret her great grandmother had kept after moving away from Fort Smith, NWT, to keep Mattern’s grandmother safely out of the residential school system.
When a cousin uncovered the news while researching their family history, it started Mattern on a journey she hopes to continue at Western.
“Finding out was a little overwhelming at first and I didn’t know where to start,” Mattern said.
She met with an elder at the University of Alberta, where she majored in biological sciences.
“I chatted with her about what it means to reconnect, what it means to be Indigenous and the right steps to take,” Mattern said. She feels fortunate to have been part of the university’s first Indigenous conference, where she learned “what it means to be an Indigenous leader, and what it means to lead from the heart in resolving conflicts.”
She also found a community of support in the Métis Nation of Alberta. When the pandemic made it difficult to meet with Nation members in person, Mattern began teaching herself how to bead.
“I started off with pins, then I learned how to make earrings. It’s been a fun way to reconnect with my heritage, but also a good way to destress at the end of the day,” she said.
Although Mattern will miss the mountains of her home province, she’s looking forward to pursing her doctor of dental surgery degree at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. It’s a dream she’s held since grade nine. “It was ‘take your kid to work day’, but both my mom and my dad travelled for work, so our family dentist let me shadow him. I loved it right from the get-go,” she said.
Her interest intensified as a Vida Volunteer, witnessing the impact dentists made in field clinics in Guatemala.
“People would come in with such pain, but would experience immediate relief right after an extraction, or after having their teeth and gums cleaned. They were scared at first but coming out they had big smiles.”
Mattern hopes to provide a similar service once she becomes a practicing dentist.
“I would love to have a travelling clinic and go to Fort Smith or any other Indigenous communities across Canada where there’s very little access to care. The elders I’ve met talked about First Nations, Metis and Inuit people being very nervous about going to the dentist and feeling vulnerable due to the past traumas of residential schools.
“I think if they receive care from someone who understands and treats them in a culturally sensitive and respectful way, it will help them come into a dental office with a lot less fear and they’ll get the help they need and deserve,” Mattern said.
Inspired to help
Isabel Savard wants people to know there’s more to see than meets the eye.
Being fair-skinned, she said, does not diminish her Indigeneity or the intergenerational trauma she’s witnessed and experienced.
“My great uncles were put into residential schools,” Savard said. “My grandfather was adopted by two white people. He was very dark and made fun of throughout his entire childhood, but he had no idea he was First Nations until he was in his late 30s. He went through a lot of trauma and became an alcoholic, and that trauma affected my mother, my aunts and uncles, and me.”
Through an aunt who works on the Oneida First Nation of the Thames, Savard has enjoyed reconnecting with her heritage. “She invites me to pow-wows and spiritual events and teaches me about medicines.”
Savard also combines her interest and pride in her culture with her passion for the arts.
“It really inspires me to go online and find old pictures of First Nations people,” she said. “Painting them feels like it brings me closer to my roots.”
With a strong sense of advocacy, Savard wants to study psychology, to learn more about trauma and help others.
“I find disorders, and emotions and the reasons why these things happen very interesting. I want to go on and get my master’s and become a therapist on the reservation, helping young people in Indigenous communities feel comfortable with themselves,” she said.
She said she is extremely grateful for the opportunity the scholarship provides.
“It’s hard to put into words how much receiving this award means to me,” Savard said. “It’s an honour because it’s an Indigenous scholarship and tied to my relations. Financially, it’s helping so much because I want to go far in my education.”