Songhees Nation Elder Skip Dick still vividly remembers his fear of formal education as a child.
But standing amongst some of the 1,000 aboriginal students who began or returned to classes this fall at Camosun College, Dick lights up as he ponders the younger generation’s future.
“Many educated people admit the only thing they know about First Nations are in the textbooks,” Dick says.
“But people are starting to understand we have to take education to the next level, and really live it instead of just talking about it.”
Dick was one of several elders – including Esquimalt Nation Chief Andy Thomas – invited to witness and participate in Camosun’s renaming ceremony for its aboriginal program on Friday.
The former Aboriginal Education and Community Connections program is now the Centre for Indigenous Education and Community Connections. (See inset photo for Lkwungen name.)
“A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the word aboriginal. Indigenous is much more encompassing,” says Shayli Robinson, First Nations director with Camosun’s Student Society, as she hands out insignia blankets to commemorate the naming ceremony.
The Lkwungen phrase, which references good heart, good mind and good feelings, “is pretty high praise in our community, and not to be used loosely,” says Butch Dick, Songhees Nation Elder and emcee at the ceremony. “But it’s not so much the name as it is the people who actually work within the institution and make it what it is.”
Camosun offers 10 Indigenous-specific programs – including Indigenous business leadership, a certificate in Indigenous family support as well as post-secondary preparation. The college also boasts aboriginal students from over 50 nations. (The University of Victoria has about 1,000 First Nations students as well.)
Janice Simcoe and Ian Humphries, co-leaders of the Centre for Indigenous Education at Camosun, pushed for the renaming together with the Aboriginal Advisory Council, a collection of First Nations stakeholders who make up the longest continuously run post-secondary council of its kind in B.C.
All Indigenous programs at Camosun must be vetted through the Council. Students are also connected through an Aboriginal Student Association, who use dedicated space at the college to organize events.
“Our goal is to have aboriginal students being reflected not only in curriculum, but in their experience in the college,” Simcoe says.
“We also know that unless we support non-Indigenous people to be better informed and feel more welcome in our circles, we won’t resolve those long, social questions of two groups rubbing up against one another.”
Another big goal for the new department will be to engage in more scholarly and community research on Indigenous issues.
“The proportion of aboriginal students we have at Camosun is one of the highest in the country,” Humphries says.
“This is far more than just a department. We have a connection across all schools and departments in the College.”
As a feast of bannock and smoked salmon is served to a few hundred onlookers, Dick reflects on the once-deep stigma towards education in the aboriginal community
“Historically, education meant you had to give up your identity, who you were as an individual. It was all meant to make us the same as everybody and assimilate us, but somehow, we knew that didn’t make sense,” Dick said.
“But we’re building those bridges now, and other universities are doing the same thing, which is really neat for aboriginal students all across the nation.”