Celebrating the First Regional Indigenous Student Summit at TRU

Posted On Friday May 19, 2023

On May 15 and 16, 2023, the first regional Indigenous Student Summit began with the excited bus loads of students gathering from schools within the Kamloops-Thompson School District and schools in ten other school districts (SD8 Kootenay Lake), SD19 (Revelstoke), SD22 (Vernon), SD23 (Central Okanagan), SD53 (Okanagan-Similkameen), SD83 (North Okanagan-Shuswap), SD74 (Gold Trail), and SD93 (Le Conseil Scolaire Francophone).

Almost 140 students and staff gathered in the Thompson Rivers University Brown’s House of Learning designed to symbolize a traditional c7ístkten. The evening of May 15 began with students gathering, socializing, and sharing food in the House of Learning followed by a scavenger hunt around the TRU campus. The next morning, on May 16, students, staff, and guests gathered to share breakfast. After breakfast, students were drummed in by the Sage Hill Drummers and a traditional jingle dancer. Indigenous student leaders from the 11 School Districts entered the House of Learning carrying their District banners in a Grand March.

After the Indigenous student leaders took their seats, the SD73 District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Mike Bowden welcomed everyone and acknowledged the traditional territory of the Secwepemc peoples, specifically the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc. Following the land acknowledgement, SD73 student Ava Jules, shared a beautiful prayer in Secwepemctsi´n. Elder Freda Jules from Tk’emlu´ps te Secwe´pemc then welcomed everyone to the territory and shared her teachings. When Elder Freda Jules concluded, Superintendent Rhonda Nixon echoed the words of Elder Joan Arnouse about “the hearthfire” or “the flame” at the centre of the Kamloops-Thompson District Strategic Plan. Superintendent Nixon reminded those in attendance to attend to “the childlike spirit within each of us” that is enlivened by coming together in community to focus on the agenda set by issues of importance to Indigenous youth– Anti-Indigenous Racism, Indigenous Culture in Schools, and Indigenous Student Health and Well-Being. Associate Superintendent of Indigenous Education Brad Baker, from the Ministry of Education and Child Care, followed this by talking about the courage the students had by gathering as Indigenous youth and sharing their voice. District Principal Bowden closed by drawing on the words of Autumn Peltier, from the Anishnabek Nation: “One day I will be an ancestor and I want my descendants to know that I used my voice so that they could have a future.”

The keynote speaker, Greg Hopf who is an Indigenous entrepreneur and co-owner of Moccasin Trails, born and raised in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and who has presented around the world on Indigenous issues, shared his story and experiences of resiliency. Greg shared his struggles growing up as an Indigenous youth with a single mother who struggled with addictions. He shared his experiences with extreme racism after he left his community, and finally how he overcame this to become a successful entrepreneur. He attributed his current success to learning to be brave and to trust the traditional knowledges he had. He asked that each student trust themselves, value what is ‘between their ears,’ and to be proud of their local and personal knowledges and histories.

After learning from Mr. Hopf to trust, try, and more importantly to be brave, students went into focus groups to share their own voices and discuss how to move forward on the topics of racism, Indigenous culture in the education system, and Indigenous student health and well-being.

The discussions were student-led and were centered by digging deep into why these themes were important to contemporary Indigenous youth. They came up with actions that could be done in the three circles of influence: School Community, District Community, and the Province.

When they completed their focus groups, the students gathered again as a larger group and presented these discussions and actions to the adult witnesses and adult change makers at the House of Learning. Each presentation was led by a speech from three representative Indigenous youth leaders from SD73, Mikey Friesen, Elle Ross, and Dakoda Kelm, who highlighted why student voice was important. They talked about how when the student voice is honoured and valued in an authentic way, youth will have more engagement and responsibility in their learning journey.

The students who discussed Indigenous Specific Racism talked about microaggressions as one of the issues. They gave examples of people talking like their culture is past tense, how they constantly feel like they are thought of as ‘dumb’ or not as capable as their non-Indigenous peers in academics, sports, and arts. Also, how if it is an Indigenous topic in school that they are expected to be the ‘experts’ and often put on the spot to be the expert when maybe they are not which makes them feel inadequate and ashamed. They talked about the imperative of educating non-Indigenous educators around trauma, cultural awareness, and cultural humility.

The students who discussed Indigenous culture in schools brought up the importance of not talking about culture always in the past tense. They also talked about how they felt that they only heard about the tragic events Indigenous peoples endured. Instead, they advocated for more acknowledgment of contemporary Indigenous culture and celebrating the positive contributions that come from their cultures.

Finally, students who shared about Indigenous student health and well-being talked about how it was important to foster a sense of belonging and safety. They discussed how to create spaces in schools and districts where there is a feeling of community among Indigenous peers that is grounded in cultural identity such as cultural clubs. They talked about leveraging Social Media in a positive way to promote healthy relationships and habits that are culturally grounded. They share ideas like being proactive with support, by starting younger and not waiting and reacting only when students are in crisis. Finally, they shared about having more opportunities like this summit, where they can gather, feel valued and proud, and have a safe place to give their authentic voice and where people actually listen.

The logo for the Summit was the bear and the medicine wheel. The bear symbolizes courage in many Secwepemc stories and the medicine wheel is about healing. It was reported by many of the Districts that the conversations continued when the summit ended among the students. The students reported they left feeling empowered; The adults that they left were better listeners and feeling reflective. The take away for this first Regional Indigenous Student Summit might be the power in creating space for student voice and for the adults, creating space to be witnesses and listeners and be more aware of their savior mentality.

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