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Education, a Step on the Road to Reconciliation

Stories | 11.12.19

Cheryl Maguire is a first-year student in the Master of Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy program at Adler University’s Vancouver Campus. She is a member of the Trondëk Hwëchin, a self-governing First Nation located in Dawson City, Yukon. “The Trondëk Hwëchin are the people of the river who are deeply committed to health and wellness, education, and social justice,” Cheryl said. Before attending Adler University, Cheryl worked as a registered social worker in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Cheryl never had the chance to attend formal art school, however, she was able to meet the pre-requisites of the counselling art therapy program by detailing the hands-on textile arts training she received from her maternal grandmother, Irene. “Grandma would say her work was a hobby, even though she sold many things over the years. Her sewing, needlepoint, and knitting are amazing, and depict Yukon related themes, such as wolves and mountains.” Cheryl said Irene’s teaching philosophy was, “‘I’ll teach you how to do it and with practice and patience, you will get this skill. If I didn’t do it right, grandma would take it apart, and I’d have to do it over again.”

Cheryl’s paternal grandmother, Anne, died when Cheryl was 11. Cheryl said Anne was also talented with textile arts. She did traditional beading and sewing on wearable art, including moccasins and mukluks. “She made her own parka,” Cheryl said. “That’s just how talented she was. She sold her art and her moccasins as a form of subsistence.”

Irene, at Cheryl’s request, helped her learn traditional sewing. Their first project was a pair of moccasins. “We found a pattern and worked it out together. We spent hours doing the beading. Grandma provided guidance and her knowledge of sewing made the process of learning much easier. She is not my First Nation grandmother, yet we were so happy to do this together.” Cheryl included handmade mukluks and moccasins in her portfolio for school. Textile art is a way that Cheryl connects with her culture. She has also developed artistic skills in sketching and painting.




Cheryl said her father’s ability to overcome adversity greatly influences her today. “My father was part of the Sixties Scoop,” she said. The Sixties Scoop occurred in Canada from the 1950s to the 1980s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities and placed in foster care or adopted. “He was raised in and out of foster care. He had 12 siblings, and they all were involved in foster care or adopted. My father had all these reasons to go down a negative path because he experienced abuse, and yet he was able to live a healthy life. He went on to become a civil engineer and focused much of his energy into raising a family, coaching and running. He’s run more than 35 marathons and continues to run in his 70’s. He’s a pretty hardworking and resilient person.”


Answering the Call to Action

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was organized in 2008 by the Canadian government with the purpose of documenting the history and impacts of the Sixties Scoop and Canadian Indian residential school system. That system was comprised of residential schools that removed Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and were where many children were traumatized and physically and sexually abused. The last residential school closed in 1996.

In 2015, the Commission published 94 “Calls to Action.” Five of these points specifically addressed a tremendous education discrepancy in the First Nations community. According to a CBC report, in 2011, the postsecondary education rate of First Nations youth was only 35.3 percent, compared with 78 percent of non-Indigenous peers.

Per 2016 census data, Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing population in Canada. And in British Columbia, the Indigenous population is diverse with 198 distinct Indigenous communities in the province.

Adler University is helping on this road to reconciliation, starting with working with Indigenous peoples to better understand their culture and perspective, and how the University can be work with them to become more inclusive.

“We’re stepping up because it is the right thing to do,” said Bradley O’Hara, Ph.D., Executive Dean of the Vancouver Campus. “As a nonprofit, private university with a strong call to social justice, we aim to be a leading example on how all universities, public and private, in Canada can create an inclusive, welcoming environment for those who identify as Indigenous peoples.


Consulting with the Community, Instead of a Mere “Open Door”

“It’s a difficult conversation,” said Meghan Robinson, Manager of Community Action and Engagement at Adler University. “As non-Indigenous people and especially as an educational institution, we need to make sure that we’re going about this process in the correct way.”

Rather than inform the Indigenous community of the ways Adler will include them, she said, “We’re making sure it’s Indigenous people telling us what we need to do to make this happen. We’re aware that we don’t have all the knowledge that is necessary. We want to gain more knowledge.”

The counselling art therapy program is leading Adler University’s efforts to support Indigenous peoples, led by faculty who have completed Indigenous cultural competency training through the Provincial Health Services Authority. Its team qualified Cheryl’s grandmothers as instructors to meet the studio art prerequisites for entry into the counselling art therapy program.

“The arts have always been on the forefront of cultural revolutions and helping to craft cultural awareness,” said Cassandra Evans, Adjunct Faculty member in the counselling art therapy program, who specializes in and teaches cultural competency. “It has also helped to give marginalized people a voice throughout time.”

Adler University has taken a number of steps to build relationships with First Nations communities. The University partners with various Indigenous community organizations for Social Justice Practicum opportunities for students. The Vancouver Campus Library is developing an Indigenous mental health collection. Community Action Day, held in May, focused on World Indigenous Peoples’ Day (occurring the same day) and featured Maori guests from an Indigenous community in New Zealand. In the afternoon, Adler University students, faculty, and staff volunteered at a National Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration at Trout Lake Park in East Vancouver.

Since 2017, a Musqueam Elder has provided a greeting for commencement ceremonies. In addition, all Vancouver Campus events begin with a land acknowledgment spoken by the University host: “I would like to acknowledge we are gathered on the unceded, ancestral, and occupied lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Watuth), Stó:lō, Shíshálh (Sechelt) and Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nations of the Coast Salish peoples.

The counselling art therapy program engages two Elders, one from the Stó:lō Nation and one from the Halkomelem Nation, to be community reviewers for Indigenous students presenting their final Masters Clinical Art Qualifying Exam. “They enjoy hearing the students’ stories about themselves and their clients,” said Program Director Duanita Eleniak, Ph.D. “They are always interested in learning where the students end up working. They tell me they find the experience satisfying.”


A Long Road Ahead

In addition to receiving education support from Trondëk Hwëchin and the Yukon government, Cheryl also received scholarships from Adler University based on her good grades and her status as an Indigenous person. She is grateful for the financial support and plans to return to Yukon after she earns her master’s degree. “My people need counselling art therapists. They need more holistic thinkers. That’s what’s the people of the North are asking for.”

“In my hometown, many good things are happening. However, there are still many complex issues affecting many Indigenous peoples,” she said, referring to high levels of addiction, mental health issues, and suicide in the area. “The trauma faced by many is acute, and the intergenerational and social repercussions, such as the education gap, are devastating.”

A 2015 article in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience advocates for training professionals from Canada’s Aboriginal communities to support mental wellness of the people in those communities.

Cheryl said one reason she was interested in Adler University is because it is unique in that with her master’s degree from the school she can qualify to be both a counsellor and an art therapist. “In my community, when I looked at the nongovernmental organizations and the government agencies, the counselors have their master’s degrees and they’re part of the counselling community. That’s kind of the bar that I felt I needed to reach in my education.”

Cheryl has felt welcomed at Adler University. “I get the sense from the school that they support me and want me to succeed in my studies,” she said. She’s aware of the support network currently available to her and would like to see it available to more Indigenous students, especially those from remote places like her.

She wants to see Adler University and other schools continue to find ways to fit into Indigenous paradigms instead of vice versa. “A lot of Indigenous people are storytellers and are very good at verbal communications, and yet find writing a challenge. How can the education system work with this? How can they build capacity and at the same time, find the gift of storytelling? Indigenous people have many gifts, and yet they are not always valued.”

As more Indigenous students begin to join the Adler University community, Cheryl hopes to see increased support from the school in connecting new students to supports and resources. “I’m away from my community,” she points out. “I imagine other individuals will come along like me who had to leave to get their education. It would be helpful to introduce new students to Indigenous supports in the community.”

Cheryl is excited to be blazing the trail for Indigenous students, faculty, and staff to join the Adler community. “I see being asked to share my story as a gift and an honor,” she said. “I know that being in a master’s program is pretty special and I want others to feel empowered to take this initiative. A positive heart and mindset, handwork, and passion go a long way—I am proof of this. I believe that for Indigenous people to heal as a nation, other Indigenous people have to walk the path I’m on by attaining higher education. I am so excited about the doors my education will open for my people and me.”

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