Second Chances & New Beginnings

By Tannis Kastern, Contributor

After some soul searching and reflection on my academic journey, I would like to share a little about myself and how second chances really do change lives. When I first arrived at Lakehead, I was a mature student and had applied for the Native Access Program. I came into post-secondary academia completely blind. I did not complete high school—I struggled before I eventually dropping out at 16, and not returning until I was 37 years old. I have worked in numerous positions throughout my life and raised four awesome kids who are now teens. While they are a big part of the reason I wanted to return to school someday, I also wanted to do it for myself!

One day, a friend of mine suggested applying to the Native Access Program. I must admit that I was terrified and thought I’m not smart enough to go to university. She came with me for support on the day of my interview. The interview went extremely well and two days later I received my offer of admission. I began the program in 2013 and began to get adjusted to the new routine and responsibility. The transition and feeling comfortable in a place that was foreign to me was difficult. I felt overwhelmed with the size of the classes, and the fast-paced lives of students. I slowly got into the routine and schedule of discipline and assignment due dates.

The ages ranged in the access program and we were like a family after spending eight months together. Triumphs, failures, tears, and laughter were all a part of the journey. I completed the program in April of 2014 and was accepted into an undergrad in the fall. Even though the access program assisted me in being able to handle a university course load, I did not know what to expect and how I would do. My first year of university was extremely difficult as I took a lot of intro classes and it was too much! I barely made it, but I did make it, and carried on into my second year. That is when I became involved in student governance. I attended a conference hosted by the Canadian Federation of Students in Toronto and had so much fun. I met students from all walks of life and from many different campuses.

It was a place where issues such as student debt, mental health, financial stress and numerous other barriers students face during the academic journey were discussed. I was immediately intrigued with the people and their passion. Their histories, knowledge, and sharing were inspiring, and it made me feel like I was a part of something that was making a difference. The student election began, and I teamed up of with two other candidates. We did class talks together and hosted a bannock and East Indian tea meet-and-greet.

It was a fun process, but then our election posters were vandalized. One of the candidate’s faces was burned with a lighter and I had red tacks put in my eyes. It was very childish and hurtful. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. We reported it to security and head office, but there were no cameras to investigate it further. I was in shock that this kind of behaviour happened at the university level. However, I wasn’t shocked as an Indigenous woman. I was and I am used to it.

Board training took place and our term began. I was eager to learn and be a part of a great team of students. Politics and power have a way of changing people. I have been on the board for two terms now and most of it has been a pleasant experience. But, there have been moments when I’ve wanted to quit. Robert’s rules are a colonial structure that are used to silence and control people. Board meetings are conducted according to Robert’s rules and it is highly oppressive. It excludes people from sharing valuable conversation and perspective. I oppose this, yet also support it – I know it is needed to keep order, but it is also used to cut people off. The new board members coming in are often overwhelmed and a little intimidated with procedural formats.

Privilege was all around me and as a Anishinaabe woman, that was terrifying. At times I felt as if I were being ganged up on because I didn’t know the terminology, and it was extremely frustrating to try to have my voice be heard. I have seen the weakness in student unions, but I have also seen the strengths. This is one of the reasons I have run for the last two terms and sought re-election again. I believe we are all unique and our histories and experiences are unique. I take people’s feelings seriously and can usually feel where they are coming from. Lived experience sometimes outweighs academic excellence.

There are politics and privilege everywhere today, as well as many different worldviews. Respecting the fact that this campus is on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation, we hope to see more relationship building actions between students and the administration. It took many years to have the Fort William First Nation flag be hung with all the others in the Agora. I couldn’t understand why that had not been done many years ago. There were flags from countries all over the world except the flag of the territory that permits settlers to come to work everyday. After many attempts and excuses as to why a ceremony may be disturbing in the Agora, it was done.

The fact of the matter is, we are in the day and age of Truth and Reconciliation. We even have a commissioner located here, but when Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler called out Lakehead University and the college for not backing the call to action to have Senator Lynn Beyak removed from office, I was shocked and hurt. We, as a student club that represents students here on campus, decided to set up our own day of action. It was a day to remember the victims of the Residential school system. It was a day to acknowledge the privilege it is to come to university. The kids that didn’t make it home to their families will never attend college or university.

The turnout wasn’t what I expected – not a lot of students, faculty, or staff. We had bannock and information tables set up. I said, “we are here to educate, share and create knowledge. We are here to honour the families and the many intergenerational survivors that walk these halls.” The invitation notice went out to the public and the board, but no board members came. I was upset to see the lack of support or care. Everyone is busy, but come even if only for a few minutes, to at least try to understand.

Change is happening slowly, and the Grand Chief said, “it is nice to see students take the lead in these kinds of campaigns and host them in their campuses.” However, the communities are divided, and people don’t take the time to get involved. But, we need to change something. We need to get to know one another. Meet someone new – you may just have something in common.

As for the experience of running in elections, I encourage anyone who is motivated and driven by passion to give it a try! Do not let fear or opinions interfere or stop you from enjoying your academic journey. Let your guard down, and do not let the normalization of privilege ever stop you. If it weren’t for second chances, I would not be where I am today. I came here with two high school credits. I am now graduating this spring with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree and I have just accepted my offer of admission to law school. Don’t let other people determine what you are thinking, feeling or experiencing. Speak up for yourself and for one another! Chi-Miigweech!

PC: Tannis Kastern