The Indigenous Education Protocol was signed by four Indigenous representatives and the president of Conestoga College, John Tibbits, in the college’s Blue Room on Oct. 31. The ceremony included live music performed by the Little Creek Singers, speeches by various representatives and a lunch at the end of the event.
Chippewas of the Thames chief Myeengun Henry, Mississaugas of the New Credit chief Stacey Laforme, the Métis Nation of Ontario vice-chair Sharon Cadeau, and Tauni Sheldon of the Southern Ontario Inuit Resource Group all signed the Protocol.
The signing of the Indigenous Education Protocol was characterized as a very significant event, proving Conestoga College’s commitment to making Indigenous education a priority.
“It’s monumental,” said Henry. “This is something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. We’ve built up this wish list that we have and the protocol is something that is going to determine the relationship we have with this college and Indigenous peoples.”
With the ceremony, Conestoga College became the 22nd college in Ontario to sign the protocol and the 59th college to sign in Canada.
Henry believes that this protocol will benefit Indigenous students.
“This signing will keep Conestoga to an agreement that this protocol talks about,” he said. “It will give us some opportunity to do some teaching and to even get into the governance of this college, so I think it’s going to have a good effect.”
Andrew Judge, coordinator of Indigenous studies in the School of Liberal and Communication Studies at Conestoga College, agreed.
“I think what it does is it commits the college to a number of really important initiatives and it doesn’t just fall on one person’s shoulders,” said Judge. “It’s not just going to be my responsibility to uphold these protocols; it touches on students, administration, the community and cultural knowledge.”
Judge hopes the protocol will bring everyone to work together, not just Indigenous staff and students.
“I think it really allows a pathway for us all to work together,” he said. He also believes that the Education Protocol signing has a major benefit for Indigenous students.
“I think it benefits the students because the college is showing leadership. They are saying that we are committing to you as students, community members and us as a college to what I feel is a permanent responsibility.”
Both Judge and Henry talked about how the protocol signing was a step in the right direction.
“It’s a step in the right direction. It’s not the biggest thing we can do. It’s a big platform that we can fill, but the bigger work is getting Canada itself to recognize Indigenous peoples in this country. This will help the educators that come through this college to know that better,” said Henry.
Judge said: “It’s a huge step forward. It’s a step towards reconciliation, to honouring the truth, honouring treaty lands. For me, I have a unique role in all of this, which is building programming. I really want to build a program that is for everyone. It’s going to be for Indigenous students, non-Indigenous students, for staff and faculty and administration.”
Judge explained how he wants to introduce an Indigenous studies program at Conestoga College, and he was very keen on the point that it will be for everyone.
“All of us eat. You eat, I eat. And you know Indigenous people have a very unique and special way of growing food and working with the ground, so that’s what we’re trying to bring back. I think this protocol will allow us to do that,” said Judge.
During the ceremony, Laforme gave both Tibbits and Christina Restoule, manager of Aboriginal Services, a gift. It was the Mississaugas of the New Credit flag. The gesture was intended to signal the strong relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the college.
Restoule was very pleased with the protocol signing.
“I think one of the things that we always try to do here at the college within Aboriginal Services is give students the chance and the opportunity for their voice to be heard,” she said. “This signing of the protocol is Conestoga’s commitment to Indigenous education and that speaks to student success of the Indigenous student population.”
There are currently 500 Indigenous students enrolled at Conestoga College and two Indigenous professors, so many people are affected by the signing.
Restoule talked about the benefit to Indigenous students.
“I think this protocol signing puts Indigenous education at the forefront and makes it a priority. Not that it wasn’t a priority before, but as we move forward, I think more and more Canadians are starting to identify that Indigenous education, traditions and value systems are important, and they do offer so much support for our Indigenous students,” said Restoule.
Tibbits agreed the signing would have an effect on Indigenous peoples and students.
“From my point of view, the Indigenous people as a group in Canada have not participated as much, as a group, in post-secondary,” Tibbits said. “What I’m hoping will happen with these protocols is that it will be more welcoming for Indigenous students.”
Tibbits explained how the number of Indigenous students that attend Conestoga College has increased substantially.
“These protocols will broaden our ability to serve a greater range of the population. I asked Myeengun [Henry] when he started [nearly a decade ago] how many Indigenous students were at Conestoga College. He said 42 — and now there are 500.”
Tibbits wants to see more growth in the Indigenous population at Conestoga.
Tauni Sheldon, the representative for the Southern Ontario Inuit Resource Group, said “education has become a positive social deterrent from issues such as homelessness, suicide and addiction” among Indigenous youth.
These are issues that heavily affect Indigenous communities across Canada.
Conestoga Indigenous student Amanda Trites added: “The signing is beyond words for what it means for Indigenous students.”