Why Ontario universities are hiring Indigenous elders

Wilfrid Laurier University will soon appoint a full-time elder at its Brantford campus. But what do elders bring to post-secondary education?
By Maria Iqbal - Published on September 8, 2017
Photos of a woman, a man, and a woman placed side-by-side.
University elders Joanne Dallaire, Andrew Wesley, and Amy Desjarlais. (Maria Iqbal)

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Students at Wilfrid Laurier University may soon have a new kind of professor at their Brantford campus: an Indigenous elder.

While there are already elders teaching there, plus a permanent elder at Laurier’s Kitchener-Waterloo location, the new full-time elder position will be the first of its kind at Brantford.

“The elder takes a lead in bringing in the cultural perspective,” said Tim Leduc, an assistant professor of social work who’s been working with other departments to bring the full-time elder to Brantford for the 2017-18 school year. The elder, who’s likely to be appointed sometime during the fall semester, will serve the entire campus, not just one faculty.

Elders have “learned under a particular position longer, more often than not, than most academics have learned, and there’s a whole set of knowledge that they have that nobody else has that they open up,” Leduc said. He taught a course on holistic healing last year with an elder.

Universities such as York, U of T, and Ryerson all have their own elder-in-residence programs, too; they’ve been appointing elders since at least 1994 to help bring Indigenous perspectives into the education system and offer support to students. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced the Postsecondary Education Fund for Aboriginal Learners to support Indigenous student learning, including through elder programs.

While Leduc didn’t give specifics about compensation, he said full-time elder positions “should be comparable with the faculty positions.”

The term “elder” is a bit of a misnomer; unlike in English, it’s a verb in Ojibwe and Cree that describes what they do. An elder doesn’t have to be a certain age, “although there is the assumption that we accumulate wisdom as we grow older, but no guarantee on that one,” jokes Joanne Dallaire, who became an elder on Ryerson’s Aboriginal Education Council in 2008 and is now recognized as an elder for the whole university.

“The community recognizes you as an elder,” Dallaire explains. “You don’t jump into being an elder. It’s a gradual accumulation of experiences and knowledge.”

Because the role has a lot to do with reputation, there was no official proclamation of Dallaire’s status as an elder, but she says some in her Peterborough community started recognizing her as such by 1992.


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Elders also come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Andrew Wesley, the elder at U of T’s First Nations House, is an Anglican priest and has a master’s degree in divinity. An Omushkego Cree from James Bay, Wesley has been a recognized elder at the university for about three years. He meets with students, gives guest lectures on campus, and offers teachings at First Nations House. He also does grief counselling and facilitates healing circles.

He says the position is like being a “grandfather away from home,” noting that Indigenous students come to him for guidance. Part of his role is to help them feel a greater sense of community and belonging. He also offers advice to the university itself, as a member of its council of elders.

“When you become an elder, you become a teacher,” he says. “You carry your traditional ways, protect your traditional ways, teach young people.”

Wesley, who attended a residential school for nine years, says non-Aboriginal students also approach him for grief counselling when they learn about “the dark history” of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

But non-Indigenous people should understand why they’re engaging with elders, says Amy Desjarlais, who’s been working as part of the elders-in-residence program at York since September 2016. She says “knowledge-keeper” is a more accurate way of describing her role.

“It’s a term that recognizes that we’re still learning, and that we do have cultural knowledge in our own right, but it’s still something we’re working towards,” says Desjarlais, whose traditional name is White Raven Woman With Turquoise Eyes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has meant more work for knowledge-keepers, she says, so she is helping new ones share their teachings, for instance by performing opening and closing prayers at ceremonies.

She says it’s challenging to have to repeat basic teachings (for example, protocols for addressing elders) over and over again. “There aren’t enough of the general Canadian population that are interested or aware of how to engage, she says, and constantly addressing the basics “takes time away from responding to the deeper work of how we move forward.”

Desjarlais says people shouldn’t engage with elders just to “tick a box”: “There’s a general feeling of, ‘Oh, we have to do a land acknowledgement now.’ But I don’t think there’s a full understanding of why those are in place.”

People should understand “why you’re engaging an elder, why you’re asking him to do this opening and what the follow-up is going to be after that,” she says. “What is your relationship with the Indigenous community after the fact?”

Jean Becker, Laurier’s senior adviser of Indigenous initiatives, agrees: “One of the challenges we always have in institutions is convincing people of the value of elders, because in academia, value is usually found in the number of degrees you have, the number of papers you write.”

Becker was the first elder hired at the Kitchener-Waterloo location and says that since the position was under the faculty collective agreement, she didn’t feel like a token hire. “I was teaching, I had the same pay and status as a faculty member,” she says.

“Tokenism occurs because elders are not brought in and made an embedded part of the institution and with an understanding that they are bringing the same value as somebody with a PhD,” she adds.

Becker will supervise the Brantford elder position, which she says is currently being offered as a two-year contract, though she hopes it will become permanent.

Maria Iqbal is a freelance journalist and a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University.

This article is adapted from a version that appeared in “Indigenous Land, Urban Stories,” a project by master’s students at the Ryerson School of Journalism, with support from Journalists for Human Rights.

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