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Stepping out of the classroom and into culture and community

Pilot course brings students to Northern Ontario to explore Indigenous support services delivery
By: Madeleine McGreevy
October 09, 2018

Photo: Elders Mario Batisse, Ann Batisse, Roberta Oshkabewisens and Marilyn Chevrier-Wills share stories during a visit to the teaching lodge at Kenjdewin Teg on Manitoulin Island.

A new field education course in the Faculty of Community Services (FCS), offered as a pilot this summer, is helping students to deepen their understanding of Indigenous support services —  and strengthen their own connection to culture.

In June, Indigenous students Ramona Shawana (early childhood studies), Jessica Sherk (social work) and Shazeal Taylor (midwifery) travelled with course instructor Nicole Ineese-Nash (an Anishinaabe scholar, Ryerson early childhood studies graduate, and current social justice education doctoral candidate at U of T) to the District of Temiskaming, located in Northern Ontario. The students worked with the Temiskaming Native Women's Support Group (TNWSG) over the course of four weeks, as part of an interdisciplinary team.

At the multi-service agency, Shawana, Sherk and Taylor had the opportunity to support Indigenous clients and staff in childcare settings, educational and training programs, and mental health initiatives and services.

What does the delivery of Indigenous support services entail? “Supporting an Indigenous community is about using your specific strengths and expertise, while also understanding the relationships that foster a holistic model of service delivery,” says Ineese-Nash. “Having a team of students coming from different perspectives allows them to understand how their work is interrelated.”

At multi-service agencies like TNWSG, clients can receive multiple supports in one place. “A woman can come to that agency who is fleeing domestic violence, who has a child, and who has dropped out of school — and she can get all of those needs met at this one centre,” says Ineese-Nash.

Indigenous support services are built upon relationships. “It’s a lot more about meeting people where they’re at...not imparting our own idea about what they should be doing but rather having them figure that out for themselves and giving them the supports necessary to do that.”

Culture also plays an important role, indicates Ineese-Nash. “When a woman arrives in the situation that I’m describing, we need to be thinking about how we support her spirit and ensure she leaves knowing who she is and feeling comfortable with who she is.”

TNWSG is governed by the District of Temiskaming Elders Council, which acted as an advisory for the course and determined the cultural experiences that Shawana, Sherk and Taylor had during their time in the community. Even though each student came into the course at a different stage in their journey of cultural knowledge, they all had the opportunity to spend time with elders, learn from the land and participate in ceremony.

While elders are highly regarded knowledge holders in Indigenous communities, the connection between young people and elders has been disrupted, says Ineese-Nash. “I think a lot of young people have not had the opportunity to learn how to interact with elders. Interacting with elders is a fundamentally important thing for your own identity development and your own knowledge development.”

Hence, engaging with elders formed an integral part of Shawana, Sherk and Taylor’s overall cultural and professional learning. Students spent time informally with elders, over breakfast or tea, and gained knowledge in what were sometimes surprising and unexpected ways.

“What I loved most about spending time with elders is you have these moments where you receive teachings. You’re not really seeking that out, but it presents itself to you,” says Shawana.  “It’s nice to have access to elders again — they make you feel so at home, and make you feel like you’re on the right path. They have so much knowledge and patience and kindness to give to students,” says Taylor.

Being on the land — and away from the city — formed an important part of the experience for Sherk. “Spending time on the land was really good for my emotional, mental and spiritual well-being,” she says. “I feel a lot more at peace.”

Ceremonial activities, including building a sweat lodge, became learning experiences that fell outside of the classroom norm. “There are teachings around how you build [the sweat lodge] and the materials you use...it was a really tactile kind of way to learn...there is so much knowledge in doing activities like that,” says Ineese-Nash.

Getting to interact with Indigenous peoples, communities and peers filled an important gap for Taylor. “It’s so isolating to be in a university setting when you’re not engaging with Indigenous peers as much as you would — especially outside of your program. It’s very heartening to be around Indigenous students who are doing great things with their education.”

The development and delivery of this pilot course forms just one step on the journey to decolonize education, says Ineese-Nash. “How can we learn from the land? How can we learn in ways that are different from the classroom setting? To go to ceremony, to be with elders — it is really just a different way of teaching.”