A champion of aboriginal education

January 27, 2012
Raina Delisle
Michael French and Theresa Gladue

When Michael French attended his first aboriginal learning circle as part of his thesis research, he walked in with a pen and a clipboard.

“An elder looked at me and said, ‘That’s not really how we do things,’” recalls French, a 2011 graduate of the MA Leadership program.

“The eagle feather came out and we smudged the room and the importance of ceremony was there right away. That was intriguing to me, the way the research combined into the ceremony of being together.”

French’s Royal Roads research project, Peek-Skee-Ton (Let’s Talk), explored the aboriginal learner experience at Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek, where he works as a chef instructor. French has worked at the college for more than a decade and is intimately aware of the challenges First Nations students face in post-secondary institutions.

“I was looking at engaging elders, aboriginal students and members of the college community to come together to talk about important aspects of learning and cultural diversity,” French explains. “I was also exploring ways to bring aboriginal philosophies into the fabric of the institution.”

French’s research quickly became less about work and more about relationship building as he was accepted into Dawson Creek’s Cree community. He credits the college’s aboriginal adviser Theresa Gladue (a.k.a. Buffalo Woman) for helping him gain access to the community and acceptance among elders.

French is now known as "Wopscow Mahikan" (White Wolf) and regularly goes to sweat lodges. He is also a member of the Northern Lights Drummers and can play more than a dozen songs in Cree on the drum he made himself with elder guidance by tanning an elk hide the traditional way. He helps facilitate the drop-in drumming at the college.

In working with the aboriginal community, French came up with a set of recommendations based on participants' input for the college as part of his Peek-Skee-Ton project. He did a presentation to college decision-makers and all seven of his recommendations were adopted.

Among French’s recommendations was to allow ceremonies such as smudging at the college. Now students who may be facing stressful situations at school or at home are able to smudge, which is a cleansing process, in the aboriginal gathering place. Another recommendation was to maintain traditional languages, and now such language courses are being offered by the college.

Of particular importance for French is the recommendation to encourage elder engagement. A moment of pride came for him when Granny Louise, one of the elders from his drum group, opened the Oct. 15 ceremony to open the institution’s new Centre of Excellence for Clean Energy Technology, Energy House for short, with a prayer in Cree. Granny Lou also welcomed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the event.

Not long after Energy House opened, aboriginal students also celebrated the official opening of their own gathering space in the Campus Centre building. The dedicated space includes a fireplace and study carrels, as well as an office for the aboriginal co-ordinator.

“It’s important for students to come into the aboriginal gathering space,” French says. “It’s a place for bridging the learning and a sharing place for all nations.”

School of Leadership Studies associate professor Niels Agger-Gupta says he was extremely impressed with French’s research and continues to be impressed with the work his former student is doing with the First Nations community.

“It was quite astounding that all of his recommendations were adopted. Usually in our projects if the sponsor or the organization takes a few of the suggestions, we count that as a success,” Agger-Gupta says. “It’s a complete shift for the college, which is quite an extraordinary direction, and it really all comes back to Michael’s work. I learned a tremendous amount about First Nations culture. For me, it was a rewarding project. ”

“It’s been quite the journey and the college has come a long way from where we were and I think that it’s very important to keep going and break down more barriers,” French says. “My experience at Royal Roads was life changing in that it allowed me to see more in depth myself and my capacity.”