“It feels like home”: Elders provide sense of community for Indigenous students

“It feels like home”

Elders provide sense of community for Indigenous students

Christine Beyleveldt // News Editor

For the last eight years, Ernie George has made himself available to answer questions, offer guidance or simply serve as a comforting presence to Capilano University students in the school’s Kéxwusm-áyakn First Nations Student Centre. George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, is an In-Resident Elder. Before he came to CapU, his wife, Deana, worked at the University and is now the Elder-in-Residence at Vancouver Community College.

Only in the last few years, First Nations Advisor David Kirk remarked, have In-Resident Elders come to play integral roles in campus communities, some even being recognized as faculty members. The elders provide guidance and cultural support, and can be an especially comforting presence to Indigenous students who are attending CapU far from their own homes. “Elders are really important to Indigenous people,” said Kirk. “So it creates that environment that we want to create – that students feel welcome.”

Liberal Studies student Crystal Henderson added that she has been able to learn about the culture of First Nations on the North Shore from George. Her hometown is Port Hardy, so attending CapU sees her living a great distance from her home. “Coming here [and] being so far away from home, I feel it is important to have the elders here,” she said. “They’re here. They’re supportive. It feels like home.”

Phil and Gisele L’Hirondelle lead a drum making workshop in the First Nations Student Centre on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

“There was a young girl here, I think it was about a year and a half ago, I think she was from far up in the Interior, and I think she graduated that spring,” George recalled. “Just before my last day she came and told me, she said ‘I know you’re the elder here.’ I told her I’ve seen her a lot of times in here. She said, ‘I’m sorry I’ve never talked to you,’ but she said ‘just walking into this room made me feel good’. You know my eyes watered up just to see her there, it felt good.” Often he’ll receive questions from students about his experiences from attending public school for the first time or residential school, or the first time he became a boss and what life is like on the reserve.

Kirk stressed that they aren’t on campus just for Indigenous students, but also for non-Indigenous members of the community to learn from in their own journeys toward reconciliation. On Mar. 8, the Kéxwusm-áyakn Centre hosted a ChatLive discussion with the Womens’ and Gender Studies program about #MeToo and what comes after this movement. During the group discussion, George shared that the Coast Salish people were a matriarchal culture until first contact.

“He shared the history of the matriarch and the Coast Salish people so those are really important teachings because we’ve not only had Indigenous students here learning from our elder but had a lot of Indigenous guests here in the centre,” said Kirk. Not all stories are teachings, but Kirk acknowledged that it’s a way to pass on knowledge gained from lived experiences.

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