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Self-exploration and identity as an Aboriginal student

On March 21, the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force will present its final report with recommendations to the university community. The historical milestone will be marked with an event that day at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 5:30-7 pm. Leading up to and following the event, the Gazette is featuring profiles of Indigenous members of the TRC Task Force. Today, the focus is on Vanessa McCourt (Artsci’02), who works at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre as a student adviser and is a former president of the Queen’s Native Students Association.

Vanessa McCourt, a former president of the Queen's Native Student Association who now works at Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, credits the centre with providing a safe haven for students and for helping them to explore their Indigenous heritage. (University Communications) 

Like many students, Vanessa McCourt (Artsci’02) found her first year as an undergraduate at Queen’s unsettling. She was homesick, and it took her a while to find a niche, a community of peers she connected with.

Ms. McCourt, who is a Mohawk from Tyendinaga with Irish ancestry as well, began visiting Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre in her second year. She started to feel a sense of belonging – the centre felt comfortable and the staff and other students were easy to talk with.

“I had a really difficult time during that first year, and that’s why, now in my role as Aboriginal adviser at Four Directions, I am able to empathize with the students who come in. I tell them, ‘yes, it is hard, I’m not going to lie, but you do get through it. You find your footing, your friends, your community,’” she says.

Ms. McCourt grew up on the Tyendinaga territory and connected to her Aboriginal ancestry more through practices and traditions at school than at home. At Queen’s, she found a path for herself while exploring her roots, both at Four Directions and through being part of the Queen’s Native Students Association (she was president in 2001-02).

Self-exploration and identifying as Aboriginal

Ms. McCourt says her experience is pretty common at Queen’s – there’s a hesitation and shyness at first, but later, students feel an opening, and for many, campus becomes the first place where they fully explore their heritage and begin to identify as Aboriginal.

“At first, there is a real reluctance to self-identify, because many don’t want to be the Aboriginal spokesperson, especially in their classes. That was the case with me and I see it still with students I speak with at the centre. You feel like the spotlight goes on you, and everyone looks at you and asks you all these questions.

“But it is a time of self-exploration, and many feel safe at Four Directions and start to feel comfortable talking about their identity and their background,” says Ms. McCourt, adding that for many, Four Directions is a place where they can connect with each other through the cultural teachings, ceremonies, and feasts (food is always a draw, she says, laughing).

After finishing her Queen’s degree in sociology and health studies, Ms. McCourt worked in various positions in health care and child services in the Toronto and Kingston areas (both Indigenous-focused and not), but says she always felt drawn back to working with Aboriginal students. As a staff member, Four Directions is still that safe place where she can be herself completely and help others at the same time.

“I’ve always had a strong positive identity, grounded in Mohawk traditions, and I think that comes a lot from growing up on reserve,” she says. “I see many urban Aboriginal students now who don’t have the positive Aboriginal identity, because they have not been fully surrounded by the traditions and people who have that background.”

TRC Task Force and a central Indigenous space

Providing that safe place and creating a sense of belonging on campus, where Aboriginal students feel comfortable, was an important facet of the work of the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force, on which Ms. McCourt served over the past year. Several of the task force’s recommendations specifically address the need for a central space devoted to Indigenous activities and the celebration of Indigenous traditions, and enhancing and promoting inclusive learning and community spaces on campus.

“I think there is a lot of meaningful work happening that is helping to move the university forward. It is really good work that is getting people thinking about the history and cultures, and about indigenizing campus space,” says McCourt. “My worry is that after the report is done, it will just sit there. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope this has energized people.”

For Ms. McCourt, it’s crucial to have a centralized administrative unit dedicated to Indigenous programming and curriculum development, activities, and student support. “Everything feels a bit disjointed right now. A more integrated centre that infuses Four Directions with the faculty and curriculum would help to get everyone on the same page.”