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‘Lifting each other up with love’: OISE honours Indigenous students with special ceremony

By Marianne Lau

March 12, 2020

Indigenous students Marleen Villanueva, Shanna Peltier and Diane Hill were honoured for their contributions and achievements at the first OISE Indigenous Students Celebration in February 2020. 

Surrounded by friends, family and community, a group of Indigenous students at OISE was centre of attention last month at a special gathering held just for them.

Hosted by the Indigenous Education Network (IEN), the first ever OISE Indigenous Graduate Student Celebration honoured those graduating this year, have recently received academic awards or served the community as IEN student co-chair.

Each honouree was presented with a certificate of recognition, and some with a blanket – a gift that symbolized the intention of the ceremony. Recalling a teaching that May Sam of Tsartlip First Nation once shared with him, event organizer Jeffrey Ansloos explained its significance to the audience.

“One of the things May Sam taught me about blankets is that when we use blankets to honour one another, it’s as if we are lifting each other up with love. That’s a good way of thinking about what we want to do tonight in honouring you,” said Ansloos, assistant professor of Indigenous health and social policy in the department of applied psychology and human development.

The ceremony began with a traditional opening and an honour song from Jacque Lavalley, an Ojibwe Traditional Teacher and Gokoomis (Grandmother), as well as words from Ansloos and Dean Glen A. Jones. It also featured a musical performance from doctoral student Nicole Ineese-Nash with Faron Hester, and an honour song from prominent visual artist Nyle Johnston.

The idea for a celebration of Indigenous students emerged from the Dean’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Education (DACIE), a group of Indigenous faculty and staff who meet regularly to advise Dean Jones on Indigenous education initiatives at OISE. They wanted to create a space to acknowledge Indigenous students for their many contributions – and to make these events more frequent and intentional.

“We wanted to set a precedent for making the university a place that considers honouring each other more deeply and substantially – and make it more a part of our everyday life,” said Ansloos, a DACIE member.

For the honourees, the celebration accomplished exactly what it set out to.

“It was emotional in the best way to be in the room and to feel the energy,” said Shanna Peltier, who received the 2019 OISE Scholarship for Indigenous Master Students. “There was a heightened level of care, sensitivity, and support present that I do not often find or experience in other spaces within university environments. I felt the pride beaming from my mentors and fellow students, and I echoed that pride right back.”

“Being honoured felt amazing and humbling,” added Marleen Villanueva, recipient of the 2019 OISE Scholarship for Indigenous Doctoral Students. “I was in a room full of people that I admire, and to be honoured amongst my peers meant a lot to me.”

Diane Hill poses with her new blanket, which she received for serving as the undergraduate student co-chair of the Indigenous Education Network in 2018-2019. 

For the event’s organizers, there was a recognition of the unique challenges that Indigenous students face in post-secondary education – and, in light of this, how important it was to ensure they feel part of a community that values them.

It’s a sentiment that resonates deeply with Peltier.

“Pursuing post-secondary education as an Indigenous person is a unique and unsettling experience. At times, it is violent and feels like an impossible endeavour,” said the second-year school and clinical child psychology master’s student.

“When institutions constantly have you questioning your belonging and capacity to excel in these spaces, these kinds of events remind you why you are here, doing what you do, and fighting for the movements, lands, peoples, and nations to which you belong.”

A dedication to one’s community is significant for not only Peltier but many Indigenous students at OISE. It’s something that all of the seven students hold in common, and “that’s so special,” says Ansloos.

“Not only are they accomplishing incredible things in their scholarly endeavours, but their scholarship is anchored and rooted in community.”

Speaking to the effort that goes into this work, Julie Blair, DACIE member and OISE’s Indigenous Education Liaison, pointed out that Indigenous students often juggle multiple responsibilities as parents, caregivers, activists and helpers in their communities. “Having recently completed graduate studies myself, I can understand how much work and care Indigenous students put into their studies and community relationships,” she said.

Professor Eve Tuck with Traditional Teacher Jacque Lavalley. As outgoing chair of the Indigenous Education Network, Tuck was honoured with a hand-woven blanket that was made in a Quichua community in Ecuador. 

Though the event was primarily for students, the community couldn’t pass up the chance to also recognize Eve Tuck. The professor of social justice education was presented with a hand-woven blanket – a gesture of appreciation for her leadership as the outgoing faculty chair of the IEN.

Ansloos, the incoming chair, said that filling Tuck’s shoes will be a daunting task – but he looks forward to continuing the legacy of someone who has inspired him so deeply.

“When I first came to OISE, Eve said something that stuck with me. And that is, we can’t just be asking how we can get more Indigenous students to the university. Instead, we need to ask how we make the university a place that is deserving of Indigenous students,” he said.

“It shifted my thinking to making sure that everything we do in the university helps to nourish the vitality of Indigenous students’ lives. That’s something from her leadership that I will take very seriously.”

The Indigenous Education Network, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, is a group of students, faculty and community members who share a commitment and passion for Indigenous education and research at OISE. For many of OISE’s Indigenous students, it’s a significant source of community.

Diane Hill, who was honoured for serving as the IEN’s undergraduate student co-chair in 2018-2019, says the experience drew her interest in applying to OISE.

“The IEN has been an incredibly supportive space for me and has made my experience in grad school so much more fulfilling, she said. “I’ve gotten to meet so many Indigenous students who I am happy to call friends.”

As for the awards celebration, Hill says it was “meaningful.”

“To be included in tonight’s celebration, in front of fellow graduate students who have become friends, and mentors and people I look up to, was powerful. It felt incredibly empowering to be honoured in this way.” 

Meet the honourees

Photo of Diane HillDiane Hill
Master of Arts student, Social Justice Education

Diane Hill is a first-year master of arts student and a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames. While completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto, Hill served as the undergraduate co-chair of the Indigenous Education Network. Hill is an active contributor to the University of Toronto and received the 2019 Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award, which recognizes students whose commitment and service have made a lasting impact on the University. Her research looks at how Indigenous young people engage in climate action and how they are asserting sovereignty within and beyond these movements. Read more about Diane Hill.

Photo of Jordan McVittie

Jordan McVittie
Recipient of a 2019 Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS)

Jordan McVittie is from Haileybury, Ontario and a proud member of Timiskaming First Nation. Previously, McVittie volunteered as a tutor for schools in her hometown and on the reserve. This experience inspired her to pursue graduate studies at OISE, where she is researching Indigenous child suicide. She hopes that this research will help generate valuable resources to support teacher education, mental health and social services, while expanding the scholarly understanding of suicide to support Indigenous childhood mental health and wellbeing in Canada. McVittie intends to move back home to serve her community once her studies are complete.

Caitlin Nanibush
Master of Education, Social Justice Education

Caitlin Nanibush is a two-spirited Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation. They will be graduating this year with a Master of Education in Social Justice Education and a collaborative specialization in Environmental Studies.

Photo of Shanna Peltier

Shanna Peltier
Master of Arts student, School and Clinical Child Psychology 

Shanna Peltier is a proud Anishinaabe kwe from Wikmemikong Unceded Territory on Mnidoo Mnis (Manitoulin Island). She is passionate about mental health, wellness and life promotion, especially as it pertains to Indigenous children, youth and their families. Peltier holds various advisory positions with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Ontario Indigenous Youth Partnership Project. She is also a co-host of the Heartberry Podcast which features Indigenous students reflecting on their educational journeys. Peltier was awarded the 2019-2020 OISE Scholarship for Indigenous Students at the master’s level as well as the Indigenous Mentorship Network of Ontario Graduate and Health Professional Scholarship. 

Photo of Jennifer Sylvester

Jennifer Sylvester
PhD student, Social Justice Education

Jennifer Sylvester’s home community is Beausoleil First Nation (Gchimnissing) on Georgian Bay. Sylvester played an integral role in bringing the annual pow wow to the University of Toronto, and is an advocate for Indigenous social issues, especially for equity, protection and inclusion for all Indigenous women. She is a single parent to vivacious 14-year-old and served as student co-chair for the Indigenous Education Network in 2018-2019. Read more about Jennifer Sylvester.

Photo of Marleen Villanueva

Marleen Villanueva 
PhD student, Social Justice Education                              

Marleen Villanueva is from the Pame/Chichimeca lands of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and is a member of the Miakan-Garza Band of Coahuiltecan people in Central Texas. Her doctoral research looks at Indigenous ways of knowing and being in relation to water. As a former elementary school teacher, Villanueva worked with Indigenous youth and elders to create a summer-camp curriculum that centred water pedagogies. She mentors with the International Indigenous Youth Council and is a member of Kalpulli Ollin Tonatiuh, a local dance group that gathers weekly to share Aztec cultural practices and dances. Villanueva was the 2019 winner of the OISE Scholarship for Indigenous Students at the doctoral level.

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