“If I can be part of something in a way that shapes, or helps another person, that’s where I want to be.”- Donna Wright, Indigenous Elder.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report with 94 Calls to Action. In the Calls to Action, education was a central point. Colleges and universities were called to lead Canada in decolonization and reconciliation measures. According to the Ministry of Education website, if educational institutions responded with culturally significant changes, higher education would become more accessible for First Nation peoples.
Selkirk College answered the Calls to Action and is committed to decolonization. The college is working to change Euro-centric views and represent First Nation cultures in its teaching and programming. It consults with Elders and First Nation communities in the region to understand the best ways to adopt the Calls to Action.
The college began an Elder program at The Gathering Place on the Castlegar campus in 2015. It lets students and faculty benefit from the Elder’s wisdom while they build intergenerational relationships. Students can request a pairing with an Elder, a person known in the community for their service and leadership.
Leah Lychowyd is Ojibway and a counsellor at Indigenous Services. She moved to Nelson 13 years ago from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Leah speaks thoughtfully when she explains why the Elder program benefits Indigenous students.
“From an Indigenous perspective, Elders have been our Knowledge Keepers. They are our keepers of wisdom. Some of our students are reconnecting to their Indigeneity, and others have a strong cultural connection. Elders can help both groups of students by creating a feeling of belonging.”
The Beat of the Drum
“The drum is your heartbeat, the first drum is your mother’s heart, and the next one is the land – the essence is the beginning. I drum to create a safe space for people beginning on their journey,” says Donna Wright, pictured in the top photo drumming at an event.
Donna is one of the Elders who are available to mentor students. She is humble and peaceful. She is an Indigenous drummer and singer, and she opens community events, including the Selkirk College social services and nursing programs. In June, she opened for Metis author Jesse Thistle at an event put on by the Mir Centre for Peace.
Donna was born in Cardston, Alberta. She travelled around Canada before finding her home in Nelson 30 years ago. Her connection with the college began while her daughter studied in the human services and social services programs. In her daughter’s last year of learning, she became ill. People at Selkirk College rallied around her to help her until she completed the year. Donna shares the reason she helps students today,
“I want to be a part of something that supports people the same way my daughter was supported. I’m a great grandmother, and I’m at the stage in my life where it is most important for me to see other people shine.”
Sharing His Wisdom With Students
“Indigenous people need to know their history because it was taken away, and it’s very important to give it back.”
Gerry Rempel is also an Elder at Selkirk College. He grew up in Renata after his great-grandparents moved there in 1911. But his parents, with his two brothers, and six sisters, left Renata when the government bought the family home and the properties surrounding it. The government flooded the area to build the hydroelectric dam. It was difficult for Gerry’s mother to leave her family’s home, but his father felt their only option was to move to Castlegar.
Gerry served as the Castlegar Fire Chief for 26 years and in the fire services for 48 years. He continues to serve as the Chaplain of the Castlegar Fire Department. His calm, gentle presence and his experience as a community leader are significant assets. He explains his role at the college,
“As an Elder, we support Indigenous students. Often Indigenous students don’t know anything about their culture. If they need a healing circle or want to come to the Gathering Place, or if they don’t know about their culture, we share cultural teachings.”
A Student Connects with His Culture
“I want to be the best I can be and encourage others because I know that if I can come from very little, and do what I’m doing, then others can as well,” says student Adrian Moyles.
In 2011, Statistics Canada determined that 9.8% of Indigenous people held a university degree, while 26% of non-Indigenous Canadians have degrees. Yet, when Indigenous and non-Indigenous students receive a similar education, the two groups score almost identically on literacy and numeracy tests, according to Canada.2020. Including Indigenous culture in higher education will help to close the educational gap.
Adrian Moyles is a Metis student and the 2021 valedictorian at Selkirk College. His story is inspirational. His single father raised Adrian and taught Adrian to lead by example. When Adrian played hockey and soccer, his dad taught him not to worry about wearing an ‘A’ or a ‘C’ on the team jersey. Instead, his dad wanted him to do his best and encourage others.
In 2008, Adrian started studying at Selkirk College, but he wasn’t ready to become a student. Instead, he found work on drilling rigs, as a welder and in a lumberyard. When his dad suddenly died, Adrian felt lost, and he stopped working.
Fortunately, Adrian began to mentor at-risk youth at Project Connect in the alternative school in Nelson. Adrian loved mentoring young people, and he was good at it. Nonetheless, without an education, it was challenging to turn mentoring into a career.
He returned to Selkirk College to finish his diploma. At the college, Adrian’s interest in his culture began to flourish.
“I gained a sense of identity, and self, because Selkirk College is very Indigenous aware, and they encourage the Indigenous way of life and traditional wisdom.”
Adrian is in his third year at UBC Okanagan to complete a degree. When he finishes school, he plans to work with youth.
A Hopeful Future
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my time here that are positive for Indigenous students and other representative groups. I do think there is a long way to go. But, I have hope from students because of their energy and inquisitiveness and their questions. There’s a real hunger for change and wanting to be different, in a better way,” Leah Lychowyd explains.
Donna and Gerry, and the other Elders, are changing the landscape of Selkirk College. They build cross-cultural relationships with non-Indigenous students and faculty and help Indigenous students reclaim or retain their cultural integrity.
Adrian Moyles is an inspiration for the students who question if they belong in higher education. In the future, the youth he works with will be fortunate because Adrian understands how important it is to help people cultivate their potential. He has insight from his own experiences. If he shares his story with the youth he mentors, they will hear an important message about resilience.
“We hear from our heart, and that’s what the drum is, it’s opening your heart. When you feel like you can be yourself, that will be your gift,” concludes Donna Wright, Indigenous Elder.