Sept. 21 was the annual Aboriginal Culture Day at NAIT; the day’s events included a tipi raising, a stew and bannock feast and presentations from elders and community members. The activities were open to the entire NAIT campus, providing an opportunity for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students to showcase and be proud of their culture and offer a chance for all students to learn and celebrate it.
This year, event coordinators tried to include more teachings throughout the day, particularly in regard to traditional ways. One of the opportunities available was a chance for men and women to smudge with one of the elders and learn more about the reasons for smudging and the cleansing that it does. In the afternoon, organizers hosted discussions about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Students were able to hear personal stories, particularly regarding navigating through the process of truth and reconciliation, as well as some of the issues of that era and residential school issues as well. The day closed with the presentation of the 2015 Sen. Thelma Chalifoux Award to the Rupertsland Institute and a stew and bannock feast.
In addition to organizing events like these, the Encana Aboriginal Students Centre provides many services and programs on a day-to-day basis. Its goal is to empower students to be confident in who they are and where they come from. One of the most significant things offered is a space to celebrate culture and receive guidance from elders. There are two Cree Elders-in-Residence at the centre, Walter Bonaise and Alsena White, who are able to provide teachings and guidance to students. If students are interested in learning more about traditional practices, such as smudging, the elders are available to talk about the purpose and significance of the practice and teach the proper way of doing it. A lot of what the elders provide is related to spiritual or personal guidance; while they’re not counsellors, they can share ways to return to a sense of calmness and balance.
The centre also offers a space to do these practices, such as a ventilated space for smudging. The centre also acts as a valuable liaison between Aboriginal students and the NAIT community, as well as the greater Edmonton community. They help to connect students with other parts of NAIT or to other services and programs available on campus, both through formal assistance and informal opportunities. The Encana Centre thinks beyond the NAIT campus, recognizing that for Aboriginal students, moving to a city like Edmonton from a smaller community can be overwhelming.
Students are encouraged to navigate within the city and support is offered within Edmonton to help them succeed at NAIT but also in their lives off campus. Aboriginal Liaison Co-ordinator Derek Thunder describes it as “community building and relationship building … so those students can feel confident and not overwhelmed. “It’s all benefitting the students and their success in post secondary; the more we can connect the students and empower them, the more networking they do and the more they do on their own, the more confident they are in regards to living life.”
The other primary focus of the centre is fostering opportunities for non-Aboriginal students to learn about the culture and engage with it. “It may say Aboriginal Students’ Centre but it is for everyone,” Thunder said. “We welcome others to come and have a taste of what our culture is about … part of what we do at the centre is provide the opportunity to teach other students our cultures,” he said. If you’re interested in learning more about the Encana Centre for Aboriginal Students or their events and services, they’re located next to the NAITSA offices. Watch for their monthly stew and bannock nights for a great opportunity to mingle with students and staff while enjoying some delicious food.