For Deborah St. Amant — better known as Bezhig Waabske Ma’iingan Gewetigaabo — being an Elder-in-Residence is a privilege resulting from a change in the social tide of Canada.
At Queen’s, an Elder-in-Residence is tasked with providing guidance services to Indigenous students in a way that’s coherent with Indigenous cultural and spiritual teachings. They will also serve as a keeper of historical and cultural knowledge for younger generations to access.
In her role, Ma’iingan’s formal responsibilities will involve providing counselling and guidance support for Queen’s students. She’ll focus specifically on connecting with Distance Studies students in the Aboriginal World Issues program. Ma’iingan will also be on campus twice a month, specifically to support students in the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program as well as other faculty, staff and students who seek her help.
Since she was in school, Ma’iingan said Canadian society has become more inclusive of Indigenous students.
“People are self-identifying now. You would never know if your teachers or peers were Indigenous when I was in school,” Ma’iingan said. “It used to be that you would pretend you were French.”
Ma’iingan’s mixed heritage comes from her Métis father and her Ojibwe mother. Raised in Penetanguishene, Ontario — a small town of less than 10,000 — she spent her childhood in different parts of the town, changing schools often.
Following moves to France and England later in her adolescence, Ma’iingan returned to Canada to pursue her post-secondary education — a Bachelor of Arts degree in Languages at Western University. In Ma’iingan’s generation, applying to university was a damaging process for Indigenous students.
“At the time when I was in secondary school, the students who self-identified as Indigenous were automatically put into the occupational stream, a two-year stream, because they thought we couldn’t actually do university,” she said.
“That kind of sticks in your head. You start to think that you can’t do it either,” she continued.
Despite this, Ma’iingan went on to complete her undergraduate degree and her Education degree at Queen’s in 1982. Now, Ma’iingan recalls her first day of university clearly.
“They’re going to know I’m an Indian, they’re going to know that I can’t do anything and that I’m a fraud,” she recalled having said to her mother on the first day of university, while also refusing to step out of the car. She was then pushed out of the car by her mother who exclaimed, “you can do this.”
While Ma’iingan did look at the Elder-in-Residence job opening with intrigue, she admits it was her colleagues that pushed her to take on the position, specifically current Director of Indigenous Initiatives at Queen’s, Janice Hill (Kanonhsyonne).
Ma’iingan joins Four Directions Aboriginal Centre Cultural Counsellor Vernon Altiman (Mishiikenh) as an advisor for Indigenous students. The two will work alongside the University as it strives to meet recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Report completed last April.
New support for Indigenous students near and far https://t.co/2YZbrru5Ly
— Queen’s University (@QueensUCanada) December 20, 2017
For Ma’iingan, the focus on Distance Studies students will be integral to the continuing studies of students who can’t directly access the University’s services. “When you’re at home and alone, it’s easy to get discouraged,” she said. “My job is to create community with those pursuing their Masters or PhD online.”
Ma’iingan’s areas of interest include Indigenous health issues, equity issues and continued language learning in Ojibwe. “My goal is to be able to think in Ojibwe,” she added, having been studying the language for three years now.
In reconnecting with her mother tongue, Ma’iingan hopes to encourage her students to explore Indigenous perspectives. She enjoys teaching about Indigenous issues and other topics surrounding equity, participating in teaching circles, ceremonies and cultural teachings.
A defining moment for Ma’iingan was becoming proud of her heritage — a pride that was absent in her years as a high school and university student. She added she would’ve appreciated having an Elder during those crucial years in university.
“If you can have relations with Elders or knowledge keepers in your community, then that strengthens the community to approach things from a different perspective,” she said. “I’m really thankful to be here, and I just really wish something like this had been available when I was a student.”
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