How the educator went from supporting aboriginal students to educating CapU
David Kirk came to Capilano University because he had a love of education. His story differs to that of most of his colleagues, though, in that he has always wanted to help aboriginal students in their individual pursuits of knowledge, a value that was instilled in him at a young age. “My grandfather insisted his grandchildren get educated, so my mom and my siblings were some of the first people to attend public school in Chilliwack,” he said.
Kirk is a member of the Stó:lo Nation whose traditional territories run along the Fraser River. “We are a part of the Coast Salish Peoples. I have relations into the Squamish, up in Sechelt and Mount Currie as well, but my bloodlines come from Stó:lō,” he added. “Stó:lō is the Halkomelem word for river. It means that we’re river people living along the Fraser River.” Like so many names that were imposed on indigenous lands and spaces, Stó:lo is the original name for the Fraser River.
Kirk completed an undergraduate degree in social work before continuing on to obtain a master’s degree in education at UBC. He worked in grade school education for a number of years before transitioning into social work, but he always missed pursuing his own education, which ultimately led him to CapU 10 years ago, where he now serves as a First Nations advisor.
In 2013, the Kéxwusm-áyakn Students’ Centre was completed. With an understanding of the intrinsic connection between indigenous culture and space, Kirk decided to assign the Squamish name of Kéxwusm-áyakn to the Centre, in recognition of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. “It was very important for us to carry a word from the people here, in their language,” he said. “In the Squamish language, Kéxwusm-áyakn means meeting place. That is what this centre is all about – about meeting all sorts of students and supporting each other.”
After a decade spent with CapU, Kirk has seen the aboriginal students that he supports reach new heights. “We have seen increases in enrolment, retention and graduation, right across the board,” he said. “We have a department of two, so we do the best we can to support students.” He attributes their progress to his department’s success in collaborating with stakeholders on campus, his own efforts as well as the devotion of his colleague, First Nations Liaison Officer Clay Little.
Kirk has taken pride in using his background in both social work and education to facilitate common understanding between First Nations students and the rest of the CapU community, something that hasn’t always been easy. “Having conversations about what it means to be a First Nations student or asking someone what they know about the history is how it starts,” he said. “A lot of people – whether you grew up in this country, [immigrated] here or are a visiting student from another country, you didn’t necessarily get taught this history of our people, a very dark part of Canada.”
He describes that Canada, 150 years after confederation, draws to mind a history of colonization and the horrific conditions exhibited in residential schools. “It was really about taking away our culture and language,” he said. “Unfortunately, it backfired. It never worked, as a lot of us are still here and practicing our culture today.”
The catalyst behind what Kirk describes as increased awareness of aboriginal history and the legacy of colonialism was a policy he was asked to develop by the administration. Three years ago, Kirk produced an Aboriginal Student Success Strategy, which gave himself and Little direction, and also served to inform administrators and faculty of changes that needed to be made. “That document has led to different initiatives, and of course the biggest initiative has been Truth and Reconciliation Week, to bring awareness to the survivors of residential schools,” he said.
While discussions of colonization and residential schools are never easy, Kirk is pleased that CapU sets aside a week in September each year to introduce Canada’s tumultuous history to those who are unaware of it. It heightens understanding and provides context for the struggles faced by First Nations today.
Visit capilanocourier.com for extended version of this profile.
Campus Life Editor
Community Relations Manager
Arts and Culture Editor