Ryerson allows aboriginal students to learn their own way
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – How Ryerson University developed a culturally sensitive social work program for aboriginal students.
May 22 2013. By: Carol Goar
“The scoop” isn’t part of mainstream Canadian history. But in First Nations, the term is so well-known it needs no explanation.
In the 1960s and 1970s child welfare authorities, convinced aboriginal parents were incapable of steering their children in the right direction, apprehended nearly 10,000 children. They were placed in foster homes or put up for adoption.
Jay Lomax was scooped from his home inDakota Tipi, a reserve near Portage la Prairie, Man. He was sent to a farm with 10 children — four of them foster kids — in Sidney, a rural community 60 kilometres away — and subsequently adopted by a childless white couple in Ontario. He grew up confused, lonely and lost.
He decided to become a cop. “I wasn’t in control of my own life,” he explained. “I wanted control.”
But as he worked toward his police foundations diploma at Sheridan College, something happened. His motivation dwindled. He completed the course, but didn’t care enough to pick up his certificate.
He made a second attempt, enrolling in aboriginal law and advocacy at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. But that felt wrong, too. He finished the course and got the diploma. It was sent by mail.
“There was always a voice in my ear whispering ‘children’s aid,’” Lomax said. At first, he shut it out; children’s aid had cut off his roots and destroyed his identity. But as he immersed himself in aboriginal traditions and culture, the truncated roots started to grow back. At the age of 30, heeding the call of the spirits, he registered for a social work program delivered by Ryerson University and First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI).
This time, his courses were relevant and his heritage was valued. “I could be comfortable with myself and the other students around me.”
On June 6, Lomax and 17 other indigenous students will receive their bachelor of social work degrees from Ryerson University. Lomax will go to his convocation proudly, accompanied by his wife and two young sons.
At a time when 95 per cent of aboriginal young people don’t go to university — and many of those who start fall away — the program Ryerson and FNTI have developed is worth heeding. It offers the youth of First Nations — the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population — an opportunity to learn the skills they need without sacrificing their identity.
“I’ve heard students say ‘I’ve got my BA, I’ve got my BMW,’” Lomax said. “Our courses aren’t like that.”
There are no lecture halls, no passive listening and no jockeying for dominance. “We are all teachers and learners,” explained Suzanne Brant, academic vice-president of FNTI. “We all bring our knowledge to the sharing circle.”
Since most of the participants have full-time jobs — Lomax has been a native child protection worker for 12 years — the course is delivered in intensive chunks in rented facilities on the campus of the University of Western Ontario in London. Students use their holidays or unpaid leave to attend, some coming from as far as James Bay. Each segment begins with a culture camp in a First Nations community, led by native elders. “We’re a social people and ceremony and clans are intrinsic to our life,” Brant said.
Three-quarters of the professors are indigenous, including Lynne Lavallee, associate director of the Ryerson School of Social Work.
It is her job to ensure the program meets the same standards of academic rigour as mainstream courses. “It’s greater,” she said. “But we provide the indigenous framework.” To maintain its accreditation the program must pass scrutiny by the Canadian Association of Social Work Educators every seven years, Lavallee added.
The objective is not to churn out hundreds of aboriginal social workers. Since the program began a decade ago, just 64 students have earned their degrees. Most have been become leaders, healers and counsellors in their communities. A few go on to get master’s degrees. Lomax hopes to be one of them, but first he has to earn some money and make up for lost time with his wife and sons.
Ryerson and FNTI don’t claim to have all the answers. But after generations of condescending and misguided policies, they have built a cultural hybrid that works.
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