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Last updated: Jan 22, 2018 5:48 am

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New support for Indigenous students near and far

Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre has hired a new Cultural Counsellor/Elder-in-Residence, while the Faculty of Education has also added an Elder-in-Residence.

Two new staff members hired this fall are already having a significant positive impact on the Queen’s community, particularly for Indigenous students.

Vernon Altiman (University Relations)
Mishiikenh (Vernon Altiman) can be found at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. (University Communications)

Mishiikenh (Vernon Altiman) joined Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre in Oct. as an Elder-in-Residence and Cultural Counsellor, a new role which sees him meeting with students and supporting Indigenous cultural ceremonies. His hiring diversifies the voices at Four Directions, as he is the only Anishinaabe man working in the centre.

Mr. Altiman’s career has been focused on traditional healing practices, specifically in mental health. He was summoned by the Elders to complete a Master’s of Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy Program through Seven Generations Education Institute in Fort Frances, Ontario. The institute is connected to the World Indigenous Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC), and is affiliated with Queen’s.

Mr. Altiman moved back to Kingston last year to work with the federal penitentiaries, and while in town he became involved in the local Indigenous community through Four Directions.

He began helping the centre with its Ojibway language programming and, through the connections he made at Four Directions, Mr. Altiman heard that Queen’s was seeking an Ojibway language teacher.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “I never dreamed that I would be asked to do it.”

A few months later, Mr. Altiman also took on the Elder and Cultural Counsellor roles with Four Directions. He says there are some similarities in providing guidance to students and his past work.

“The difference is that the students are willing and seeking the knowledge,” he says. “There are different objectives, different teachings that are used…and it is open and free.”

Since joining Four Directions, Mr. Altiman has had the opportunity to present to medical and education students, and help organize Indigenous ceremonies on campus including smudging. Annually, he participates in ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, which involves four days without food or water and a trial of physical endurance.

“It’s not just feathers and beads…it is research. It is hard work, commitment, and sacrifice,” he says. “I pick up a lot of baggage that I have to dispose of, so that’s why I am committed to these traditional annual practices.”

Bezhig Waabshke Ma’iingan Gewetiigaabo (Deborah St Amant). (Supplied Photo)
Bezhig Waabshke Ma’iingan Gewetiigaabo (Deborah St Amant) has an office in Duncan McArthur Hall, and she also connects to students through video conferencing. (Supplied Photo)

Meanwhile, in the Faculty of Education, Bezhig Waabshke Ma’iingan Gewetiigaabo (Deborah St Amant) is applying new technologies to Indigenous traditions. Ms. St Amant (Ed’82) describes the largest part of her role as a ‘Cyber Elder’, where she virtually connects with students in the Master of Education in Aboriginal and World Indigenous Educational Studies (AWIES) and the faculty’s doctorate programs.

“When the AWIES students get together in the summer, they really like that sense of community,” Ms. St Amant says. “When they leave Kingston – headed to Whitehorse, to Moosonee, and every other part of Canada – they lose that connection to their student learning community. The relationship is so important in any Indigenous culture…it’s all about the relationship and being able to see the person.”

To help foster those relationships with the students, she holds regular video calls – and, starting in January, she hopes to start a virtual ‘talking circle’ with the entire group simultaneously connected to the same video call. Ms. St Amant is also on-campus twice a month specifically to support students in the Aboriginal Teachers Education Program (ATEP) or other faculty, staff, and students seeking an Elder.

She says Indigenous students face a number of barriers in the education system, and it can be helpful to have an Elder who can counsel them and vouch for them.

“A lot of the discussions I have are about the challenges of doing this work online as an Indigenous person; about social, familial, and funding barriers; barriers within the education system and cultural misunderstandings; and the intergenerational trauma that was caused by the residential school system,” she says. “Those who have not experienced some of these hurdles cannot understand their impact, but I am able to help them clear these hurdles.”

Ms. St Amant, who possesses both Métis and Ojibway heritage, worked as a teacher for three decades before retiring in 2012 – skills which have served her well as Elder-in-Residence in an academic environment. Since starting in her part-time role in October, there has been significant demand for her time.

“This is an important role, and it’s a great step for the faculty. I something like this was available when I was a student.”

The Elder-in-Residence position within the Faculty of Education was established with the support of Oriel MacLennan in memory of her mother, Edwina Diaper (MEd’82), who was a teacher in the Kingston community for many years. Learn more about this position on the Faculty of Education’s website.