Four Directions’ second family

Common misconceptions exist among student body regarding native students

Georgina Riel, Four Directions Aboriginal Centre director, said the centre is a place for aboriginal students to feel supported and at home.
Georgina Riel, Four Directions Aboriginal Centre director, said the centre is a place for aboriginal students to feel supported and at home.

When she first came to Queen’s, Dana Wesley wanted to leave.

She said it was hard to come to university because of her strong family ties at home.

“It wasn’t as much as a culture shock but a loneliness,” she said.

Wesley, ArtSci ’08, grew up on a reserve in Moose Factory, Ont. Despite her feelings of loneliness, she said she didn’t feel comfortable enough with herself to go to Four Directions, an aboriginal resource centre for students at Queen’s.

“It was part of hating myself,” she said. “That’s internalized racism … not wanting to be part of your culture because you’re embarrassed. … You have no idea how if affects you.”

Wesley finally ended up going to the centre, however.

“It was awesome,” she said “They understand so many things about aboriginal communities and how they work. It just felt like home.”

Wesley is the president of the Queen’s Native Students’ Association (QNSA), which organizes the annual aboriginal awareness day. Wesley said the group hopes to expand it to an aboriginal awareness week in March. The association meets once a week on Wednesday after the weekly feast to plan events and activities.

There are about four to five students who attend meetings regularly and another five to six more who attend occasionally, Wesley said.

“The biggest problem is just getting out there. We’ve been around for a long time but a lot of people don’t know because we don’t have enough resources. We’re hoping to be more active in the Queen’s community.”

According to the 2005 Applicant Equity Census Results, 50 students who identified as aboriginal registered at Queen’s.

Wesley said as an aboriginal student, she has to deal with the systemic racism at Queen’s.

“It’s not blatant, usually. It’s smaller things like, ‘Let’s play Indians and cowboys,’ or when [students] say ‘Indian giver.’ I can’t believe people think it’s okay.” After taking courses on aboriginal history, Wesley said she realized not everyone challenges what they think.

“They’re more inclined to challenge what they are taught. It’s harder to challenge racist views because it’s hard. I think that’s the biggest problem. If you don’t re-evaluate what you think, you’ll never change.”

In January 2004, the University Aboriginal Council created a policy that would allow for 10 aboriginal students to be admitted to the Faculty of Arts and Science under a separate admissions process. The council was aware that aboriginal students were under-represented and hoped to provide more opportunities for students of aboriginal heritage.

Georgina Riel is the director of the Four Directions Aboriginal Centre, which is funded by the University and the government as part of the Aboriginal Education and Training Strategy.

Riel said most first-year students who come to the centre deal with natural concerns of first-years, such as dealing with the heavy work load.

“Once we’ve gone past the first-year hurdle … there’s isolation and community concerns,” she said. “We’re always adapting to students on a yearly basis.”

There are three elders that are part of the staff: a Nokomis, an in-house grandmother, a dada, an in-house grandfather, and a visiting elder.

Riel said the elders help students emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically.

“They help maintain a balance in students’ lives,” she said.

“[We let them know that] it’s okay to have these ups and downs. We try to make sure depression doesn’t kick in, or isolation,” she said. “We’re there to make sure if they’re not healthy, they seek out medical services.”

Riel said the elders provide guidance for students, but don’t direct them.

Four Directions also provides educational resources. Tight now, the centre provides a program called the “Brown bag seminar series,” which gives people the opportunity to learn about aboriginal customs and practices.

“We also have a following of people interested in faiths and spirituality. There’s a huge interest with services that Four Directions offers,” Riel said, adding that one reason for such interest is because there’s no First Nations Department at Queen’s. “When we do recruitment, [we meet] students with incredibly academic backgrounds. The first thing they ask is,‘Do you have First Nations Studies?’ We say no and then we get booted to the back of the line,” she said.

To counter this reaction, Riel said the centre has done research to find every course at Queen’s that offers even one day of class on aboriginal history or topics on aboriginal culture.

Riel said some students may have to deal with stereotypical myths, such as the misconception that all Aboriginal students on campus came through the “back door.”

“It’s hard for students. For aboriginal students here, they are looked upon as a spokesperson for all aboriginal people. It’s exhausting,” she said.

Whether students are met with verbal or unspoken hostility, Riel said the centre is a place where students can feel safe discussing all issues and concerns.

“This is not a hideout. We encourage that students create their own support system,” she said, adding that an increasing number of non-aboriginal visible-minority students are coming to the centre.

“They’re finding that we have a lot of similar aspects in our culture … 50 per cent are aboriginal and 50 per cent are non-aboriginal students who take part in QNSA, which speaks volumes of the ‘safe’ factor … in offering programs for people who are interested in the knowledge,” she said.

Four Directions also organizes an annual symposium, which takes place in November each year. Last year’s symposium was titled, “Race, Identity and the Law.”

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