Elder-in-Residence Position Empowers Education Students

photo of eleni fortis
Eleni Fortis, B.Ed'18, is a student in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program.
Deb is empowering, encouraging, and supportive.

As a non-indigenous student in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, Eleni Fortis, B.Ed’18, had a lot to learn about Indigenous Studies. That’s why access to an Elder-in-Residence — a person who holds traditional knowledge — has been a crucial component in creating a safe learning environment for students. 

Deb St. Amant (Bezhig Waabshke Ma’iingan Gewetigaabo) of the Ojibwe and Métis Nations currently holds the position, which has been entirely funded by donors. For seven hours a week, Deb works in the program to support students academically, personally, and spiritually. The Faculty of Education hopes to increase her office hours to better support students, especially since Ontario implemented an Indigenous Education Strategy across the province.

Although she completed an undergraduate degree in Indigenous Studies from Trent University, Eleni says having the support of an Elder in Residence has strengthened her knowledge of Indigenous cultures. Deb has taught her traditional songs and activities and even helped her plan lessons. “I’ve gone to her for guidance with my lessons many times,” Eleni says. “She’s just so involved. She always makes herself available.”

To learn more about the culture, Deb encouraged Eleni to become involved in Indigenous programming outside of class and recommended she volunteer with The Kingston Indigenous Languages Nest, a community organization comprised of Indigenous language speakers who teach Indigenous languages through activities, projects, and games. Eleni says she was immediately interested in the opportunity based on her own upbringing and personal relationship with Greek culture. She learned Greek from her grandmother and understands the importance of language revitalization and learning through relationships. 

“I am very close with my culture, so learning about someone else’s really captured my attention,” she says. “There’s a difference with language when it’s learned first or second hand.”

Eleni says interacting with Deb as the Elder in Residence has provided her with invaluable learning experiences that have given her the courage to take her knowledge into the classroom. 

“There’s less fear for me,” she says. “It gives me more confidence as it’s not just me trying to say the words on my own, she’s saying the words with me, and it’s more authentic.”

The genuine interactions she has experienced both in class and in the community have been more meaningful to her than learning from a textbook, she says. 

“What has stayed with me has been the in-person experiences,” she says. “Deb is empowering, encouraging, and supportive. She’s passionate about what she’s teaching us and it’s real. I’m part of a community.” 

To learn more about the Aboriginal Initiatives Fund visit the Give to Queen’s page

Watch the video below to see Deb, the Elder-in-Residence meet Leda, a donor to Aboriginal teaching and learning programs.