Every Onkwehón:we student has a unique academic journey, and the First Peoples’ Post-secondary Storytelling Exchange (FPPSE) project is set to show just how much most of them are an example of resilience and strength, in the face of challenges and barriers.
Launched on February 16, the initiative’s website is the culmination of a four-year collaborative project that was created by English teacher Susan Briscoe, to address the inequalities in education through storytelling. The FPPSE team collected over 100 stories from students and families from more than 20 Onkwehón:we communities to share on the platform.
The website offers not only insightful recommendations for academic institutions, but also a space for Kanien’kehá:ka, Cree and Inuit voices to share their post-secondary experience documented during the research.
“The launching of the FPPSE website is our opportunity to gather and showcase our research findings,” said research coordinator, Kahnawa’kehró:non Morgan Phillips. “The key to this research is our call to action for needed change in the areas of building post-secondary institutions in northern communities; seeing more Indigenous people in leadership at post-secondary institutions; and addressing issues in the classrooms such as expectations of Indigenous students to be the experts on history and identity topics.”
The project is a collaboration between more than 10 partners such as Kahnawake Survival School (KSS), the First Nations Regional Adult Education Center, Dawson College, John Abbott College, as well as Concordia and McGill universities. It was funded by the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
FPPSE principal investigator and project lead Michelle Smith, explained that one of FPPSE’s objectives is to advocate and converse with post-secondary institutions, in order to push for change, while addressing Indigenous needs and aspirations.
“No more hierarchy of knowledge,” said Smith during the virtual press conference.“- Students who are going into post-secondary education shouldn’t have to choose between pursuing post-secondary and engaging in the western knowledge system or learning their own culture and heritage.”
Academic institutions are key players in the project to address the vast education gap. In Quebec only, 25 percent of non-Indigenous people have university degrees compared to eight percent of Indigenous people, according to information released in 2011 Statistic Canada. From lack of access to lack of support, the challenges and obstacles come from all angles. Through her research, a recurring issue that Smith noticed was isolation, paired with the feeling of being the only Onkwehón:we student in the class. Many voices reported that they sometimes had the unsolicited burden to teach fellow students about their culture.
As a former KSS student, one of FPPSE’s research assistants, Kahnawa’kehró:non Kahawihson Horne, experienced firsthand that same loneliness once she arrived at Dawson College in Montreal. During the website’s launching, she recalled growing up and humbly watching the Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance documentary by Alanis Obomsawin in high school, but experienced something completely different in CEGEP.
“They didn’t seem to realize it was a real thing, real people, a reality for many people in my community,” said Horne as she described fellow students laughing during the documentary. “For them, I was an unwelcome reminder of that reality. You could feel the tension in the class, the isolation, that for some people you were inconvenient.”
Horne explained that by joining the FPPSE team, she wanted to rectify the experience not only for herself, but also for her mother, who had a difficult time attending school directly after the socalled Oka Crisis.
“She didn’t want to pursue her education journey because it was a dehumanizing and terrifying experience,” said Horne. “For my part, I hope that from this project I get to right those wrongs and make post-secondary a place where people would feel welcome.”
Storyteller and research assistant Lucina Gordon’s words were similar. The Inuk woman from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, was 17 when she moved away from her hometown to pursue her studies in Montreal. She talked about feeling unwelcome and lonely as one of the only Onkwehón:we students in her program - searching for a sense of belonging and community.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Gordon. “A lot of ups and downs personally, it was difficult to deal with homesickness.”
Gordon wasn’t the only participant who addressed the hurdle that comes with being away from communities - which was also only one amidst many recurring themes.
As a result, the FPPSE included a series of future visions and recommendations on the website to strengthen Onkwehón:we access and experience when dealing with post-secondary studies. It includes the opportunity to have post-secondary institutions in communities for students to remain at home, an increased traditional knowledge-based learning in all disciplines, training for teachers to better understand Onkwehón:we students’ contexts, and to better address sensitive topics in class.
The question of language was also a deeply important aspect that was mentioned across all nations, demanding to make French learning an option, rather than its current mandatory status. FPPSE highlighted the overwhelming expectation related to language - even for students from remote communities.
While the initiative is currently in English, Smith explained that one of the next steps is to translate the interviews and research outcome to broaden the collaboration. All the stories and recommendations can be found on the FPPSE website at https://fppse.net/.
“There are not many things in this world as emotionally rattling, unsettling and painful as when you walk in a room full of people where there’s a place for everybody but not for you,” said Horne. “I would like to do my part to fix that, to make a place for Indigenous people at the table.”
Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door