In Canada, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities have experienced great unemployment and socio-economic devastation as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating already present inequities. Adler University acknowledges these disproportionate impacts to Canada’s Indigenous populations—making collaborations and awareness building programs even more important.
In February, the Adler University Vancouver Campus, with support from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, began an Elder-in-Residence program as part of an initiative to build connections and increase education and awareness of the experiences of First Nations communities.
“We are pleased to welcome Reanna Erasmus, a First Nations Elder and Educator, as the first Adler University Elder-in-Residence,” said Bradley O’Hara, Ph.D., Executive Dean of the Vancouver Campus. “First Nations Elders possess a wealth of knowledge and life experiences with specific expertise in an Indigenous culture that they are eager to share with the University community.”
Erasmus is from the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, BC, and has worked in Indigenous (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) advocacy, policy, education, and community development for 40 years. In retirement, Erasmus continues to work on national expert working groups, facilitating First Nations self-determination and lifelong learning.
“I am quite honored to be asked to come share my knowledge,” Erasmus said. “I think it’s a good first step toward reconciliation.”
While at Adler University for the week of February 17, prior to the shift to virtual instruction, Erasmus met with students, faculty, and staff throughout the week. She joined multiple meetings and events, including the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and hosted a town hall meeting, and a presentation on, “What is Reconciliation?”
Jennifer Chalmers, Psy.D., Director for Adler Community Health Services in Vancouver, is a member of the Vancouver Campus Diversity and Inclusion Committee and has worked with First Nations communities. She wanted to help contribute and guide this work to provide more opportunities for the Adler University community to learn from First Nations Communities and to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus.
With collaboration, the concept came up of an Elder-in-Residence program. “We thought, there are writer-in-residence programs, so instead of a guest speaker, why not having something more embedded?” Chalmers said. She wanted to have an opportunity for students, especially those who work with First Nations Communities to “learn more about their history, concerns and how we can work together toward reconciliation.”
Chalmers brought Erasmus, who she has known for the 25 years, on board to serve as the first Elder in the program. Erasmus said she was interested because “I think that reconciliation is about education, partly, and I think it’s really important that the Canadian population is aware of what is happening in our First Nations community,” Erasmus said. “If you don’t know what has happened, if you don’t know our truth, then it is very hard then to reconcile and understand what is happening in the First Nation community.”
Erasmus said she has felt welcomed by the Adler University community. “Everyone has been very open. There is a real interest in the Canadian population to hear what we, First Nations people, have to say,” she said. “I think it is important to hear First Nations voices. For so long, our voices have been silenced. They haven’t been respected and haven’t been heard.”
This is slowly changing, Erasmus said. “We are moving slowly forward with more people recognizing that we have rights and we have the ability to govern ourselves.”
Erasmus added that especially with the climate crisis and other current events, “it is important for people to understand the responsibility we have as First Nations people to the environment. We are the caretakers of the land, the air, the water, and the animals.” It is important for all people to come together with a collective voice and an “understanding about our responsibility as human being living on this land,” she said.
The Vancouver Campus plans to continue the program for years to come. “We want this to be a staple program because there is a huge need for it,” said Sandeep Atwal, Psy.D., Assistant Professor for the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program in Vancouver. “Our goal is to have it at least once a year, if not more.”
“We want to provide this experience and support our students for when they become practitioners—but also for them as citizens,” Atwal said. “This goes beyond being good practitioners. It is about developing the responsibility we have to the world as citizens.”
Photo credit: Nicole Chan