By Thomas Rose, Orillia Contributor
For a university that prides itself on a positive relationship with the Aboriginal community, Lakehead’s Orillia campus is severely lacking in services for Aboriginal students.
When Meghan Young came to Lakehead to start the one-year Social Work program in July 2015, she sought out a space where she could meet with other students and engage in a sense of community. What she found, however, was that “there is no community,” on the Orillia campus.
Asking around, Young was informed that though there had been an Aboriginal Liaison on campus in previous years, this year there was no longer the budget to fill the position. Further probing found that previous attempts at creating at least a club for Indigenous students had failed to develop. Left feeling that the Orillia campus lacked the avenues for an Aboriginal student voice, Young contacted Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Lakehead’s Vice Provost (Aboriginal Initiatives) in Thunder Bay. Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux agreed to come meet with Young and other students on campus in September, and their application to incorporate the Lakehead University Aboriginal Students Committee as a club was unanimously passed despite not meeting the 10 member minimum. Things, it seemed, were looking up.
Fast forward to January 27, 2016. Lakehead Orillia holds an open Town Hall meeting for students to voice concerns and ask questions about the issues which directly affect them. Starr Sandy—along with Young, (one of the three members of LUASC)—presented a written statement of the committee’s concerns. Chief among them is the lack of staff support and lack of a designated space for Aboriginal students to meet, participate in traditional self-care practices, and discuss the barriers they face in their post-secondary education. Young and Sandy stress that though Dr. Wesley-Esquimaux has been an enormous boon to their efforts (through securing not only funding to fill the Aboriginal Liaison position, but also a “significant pot of money,” for the group to put towards events), without a faculty anchor for the committee, student-led events often fall to the wayside due to demanding school schedules.
One of the biggest barriers remains the lack of space, an issue for many organisations on Orillia’s smaller campus. Young says that there is currently a five-day protocol in effect to request permission for practices such as smudging, and though she can appreciate the concerns that come along with such a request, it certainly doesn’t make the practices feel welcome. Sandy adds that she faces similar issues living in residence. Burning of scented materials in rooms is banned, and the lack of a designated space in which to do so can lead to feelings of awkwardness. “I’ve got my medicines with me,” she says, “but I don’t want to go out to the smoking section and smudge there.”
More than smudging, however, the lack of a meeting space impedes the ability of the sixty plus self-identifying Aboriginal students to find each other on campus. Young and Sandy have been told that Lakehead has a partnership with Georgian College, and LUASC can access those meeting spaces. However, information about who to contact in that case has been scant. “What am I supposed to do?” asks Sandy, “Go in and say, ‘where the native people at?’”
The situation, however, does not appear entirely hopeless. Young says that the group has been able to find allies in figures such as V.P. Orillia, Sami Pritchard, and Campus Coordinator, Leigh Castle. There have thus far been no issues in booking space for meetings, and a conversation about designating permanent space is ongoing—though Young notes that much of that conversation is “going on above [their] heads.”
Both Young and Sandy agree that with or without a meeting area, the only way to work towards building services for Aboriginal students is to build a culture of conversation. Aboriginal students and allies are invited to attend a vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women on campus March 8, 2016. In the meantime, LUASC remains strong despite their small number, and implores any students who feel a desire to connect with their culture to reach out to them.