Building a relationship was the idea behind the recent Conversation with the Elders event, held on Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus.
“Almost all of VIU’s planning documents focus on how the university is going to engage with Aboriginal peoples and communities,” said Sharon Hobenshield, director of Aboriginal Education. “To do that we need to do more listening to understand the depth of aboriginal views, philosophy and how to incorporate aboriginal ways of knowing, being and learning into Western academic traditions.
Hobenshield got in touch with John Swift, a sessional instructor in VIU’s First Nations studies department, to talk about the best way to develop and deepen VIU’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples and communities.
“After some discussion we thought it would be good to start a dialogue to tease out how the relationship between the university and Indigenous communities has been built, how it’s maintained and how it might evolve,” said Swift. “So, we started asking questions like ‘How do we build a respectful relationship?’ ‘How do we support Indigenous people who want to work in the academy?’ and ‘How do we start to right the wrongs of colonization?’ When we started asking those questions we realized we needed to start a dialogue with the wider community.”
Ideas about inviting keynote speakers and having break out rooms for discussions were at first considered, then they realized the model they were proposing for the process was putting the Western academy at the forefront.
“What we wanted to do was have the elders and Indigenous knowledge at the forefront,” said Swift, “Which is why we began to shift our ideas around to a morning of conversation.”
The elders spoke from their positions, sharing stories on what the relationship between VIU and their communities might look like in regards to education and learning.
“The energy was very relaxed,” said Swift, “and very positive.” Heather Burke, of VIU’s office of enrolment management, participated in the conversation and described it as amazing.
“It was a welcome learning experience for all in attendance. It’s clear that First Nations, Inuit and Metis listen to their hearts when doing anything.” said Burke. “I am Metis and had a ‘white’ upbringing because my dad was afraid of me facing the same discrimination he faced. The elders showed me today that it’s OK to be wrong and to accept guidance and also to want a genuine connection with others. It was a beautiful start to what I hope is a continued way of teaching, learning and connecting at VIU and everywhere.”
More conversations have been planned, but both Hobenshield and Swift are careful to point out that the process these events have started is not goal-oriented, but instead is being approached through Indigenous ways of being and interacting.
“Indigenous knowledge is an internal journey – you’re not necessarily given the answer,” said Hobenshield.
“Instead it’s reflected back to you through story-telling or examples and you’re encouraged to think about it yourself and come to an understanding of the situation. It’s a different approach of learning which tends to focus on the external.”