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The Work of the Office of Native Affairs

Dr. Carl Urion can remember a time in the early 1970s when there were only two or three Native students on campus in any one year. Dr. Urion, now the University of Alberta's advisor on Native affairs, has long been involved in the struggle of Alberta's Native people to gain full access to educational opportunities. Now on secondment from the department of educational foundations and aided by an energetic and capable staff, he continues the work started by the first Native affairs advisor, Marilyn Buffalo, of creating a place on campus for Native people.

The University of Alberta's Office of Native Affairs, tucked away in the basement of Athabasca Hall and with a staff of only four, might seem a modest operation. However, since its establishment in 1975, the office has provided both a vital centre for Native people on campus, and information services for the whole University concerning Alberta's indigenous peoples. Both students and professors working on topics related to Native people frequently find that Native Affairs plays a key role in aiding their research. The office has become a major point of contact between Native culture and the mainstream society.

For example: earlier this year a non-Native student wanted to find out about North American Indian religion. She consulted textbooks but found the written material on the subject scarce and perhaps suspect, coming mainly from the observations of European Canadians and Americans. The student decided that the best place to obtain information would be from Native people themselves, but she had no idea whom to ask or the proper manner in which to broach the subject. She contacted Rosamond McCue, the assistant Native affairs advisor, for help. Ms. McCue gave the student the names of some Native elders and told her how to make the correct approach to these highly-respected men and women, to ensure that she would be accepted as a serious student of Native religion. The office has the expertise to create such positive contacts between the cultures and daily handles requests from students and professors for help.

The office also handles requests for assistance from the community beyond campus. Ms. McCue was recently approached by an instructor at a local community college engaged in setting up a teaching program on early childhood education and needing information on Native child-rearing practices. Another recent request was from a woman who had adopted a child of Native ancestry and who wanted to know how she could present his heritage to him in a positive manner. Rosamond McCue finds the office is "moving out into the community more and more," to respond to diverse kinds of requests for help.

On campus, as well as aiding non-Natives to gain knowledge of Native traditions, the office also helps Native students gain access to University services.

The office doesn't want to isolate Natives as a special group on campus, but rather, in Rosamond McCue's words, "act as a stepping stone to integrate Native students into the system." In counselling students, the staff sometimes find themselves describing the intricacies and possibilities of a system that is often very alien to Native people, especially to those from remote reserves or distant rural areas. For many Natives, campus is a crowded, competitive and frightening environment quite different from the world they know at home. The transition to university sometimes demands an enormous adjustment. Native Affairs can help. Rosamond McCue says, "We let them know we're ready to listen, and we're here to help them help themselves." She adds, "Often a student just needs to sit down and talk." The Office of Native Affairs provides the kind of close supportive atmosphere where Native people can feel at ease on campus, where they will want to share problems.

The mention of a special office whose function is, in part, to provide student services for a select group sometimes provokes the question, "Why should Native people receive special services on campus?" The question is partly answered by Native Affairs' avowed policy to, whenever possible, refer students to regular campus services such as student finance or the Faculty of Extension. It is not the policy of Native Affairs to duplicate existing programs or services but to create bridges for Native students to pass into the regular life of the University.

But it must be admitted, the existence of the Office of Native Affairs does give Alberta's indigenous peoples some special attention on campus. However, this consideration seems highly justified in the light of the historical situation of Canada's first peoples. The reserve system largely replaced Native leadership with white civil servants, missionaries, storekeepers and school teachers. At the same time the Church residential school system broke up family life. The residential schools, intended as part of a benign policy towards Native people, ended up alienating a whole generation from education. Incredibly, Native school children were often not allowed to speak their own language while attending the schools. This didn't happen a hundred years ago. Native people on campus in their 30s can still remember suffering the residential school system. They speak bitterly of the loss of their language, the separation from their families and the enforced religious practices.

Inequalities and injustices continue into the present. Many Native schools in the province still do not offer high school matriculation, placing their students at a considerable disadvantage in the present competitive University environment. In supporting the work of the office, Native Affairs Community Liaison Officer Jeannine Laboucane says, "Many historical factors justify the work we do here. We're opening doors for Native people for the first time." As well as sharing a common historical background, Native students share common contemporary problems. Usually the students represent the first generation from their community to receive university education. One student asked the question, perhaps on the minds of many: "Can I still be an Indian and come to university?" Undoubtedly Native students may feel alienated in their own communities because their university education sets them apart. And they are often under some pressure to establish the credibility of a university education.

Native students are usually a little older than the average freshman; the average age of Native students is 25-35. Consequently, unlike most undergraduates, they often have children and the special demands on time and money that children make. Native students may also be strongly attached to large extended families back home, and these families can also draw on a student's time and energy.

Native Affairs encourages students to share common problems, to build a self-supporting community of shared interests and experiences. The existence of a coffee lounge especially for Native students helps students to meet and share problems. Rosamond McCue believes that the students can give each other support in more vital ways than even the well-qualified and experienced staff can, because the students are nearer to each others problems.

Although the staff members of the office work as a team, Jeannine Laboucane, as community liaison officer, is especially responsible for pre-admission counselling. Appointed only in December 1983, Ms. Laboucane has already been working closely with some of Edmonton's 22 Native organizations and visiting junior high school students in more-distant locations. Her work in the next year will be increasingly concerned with visiting remote Native communities and letting school children know that people on campus care about their future. Jeannine feels that it is important to extend friendship to Native school children and give them hope for the future. She will be speaking mostly to junior high students, because the dropout rate for that age group is the highest. Already, Jeannine has met with hundreds of students in the High Prairie area. She finds that students expect her to know everything about further education and careers, not just about university education. But this doesn't daunt her; she says "meeting young people is the nicest part of the job."

Native students often have no role models within the university system because no one from their area has attended university. Jeannine, a Metis from Red River, Manitoba, can provide a role model in her own person, and she says that this is as important as dispensing information. Jeannine also feels that sometimes Native school children will open up to a Native counsellor in a special way. She cites the example of a student who had been written off by his school administration as lazy, but in counselling with her revealed very real concerns that were blocking his academic progress.

In the fall, Jeannine will be spending seven days a month travelling, visiting schools for Native students in Fort McMurray, Wabasca, High Level, Fort Chipewyan, Peerless Lake and other northern locations. Jeannine believes that contact between Native people will start the process of change. She remains optimistic about the future, stating that the projected enrollment for Native students at the U of A next year is 140.

Jeannine also shares the excitement of the rest of the office over the General Faculty Council's recent acceptance of the concept of a School of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. The school would offer a BA in Native studies and would be a major research centre in the discipline. At the moment, non-Native students who have set career goals which will involve working with the Native people do not have a centre on campus to learn about Native culture. In that regard alone, a school of Native studies would be an asset to the whole community, she says.

With so many possibilities in the offing for Native people on campus, both non-Natives and Natives can understand Ms. Laboucane's remark, "It's a very good time for Native people now. It's both exciting and scary."

AT THEIR MEETING of April 13, 1984, the University's Board of Governors gave approval to the establishment of a School of Native Studies. Earlier the proposal for such a school had gained the support of the University's major academic decision-making body, General Faculties Council. The idea of a Native studies program at the University arose several years ago, and the proposal that went before GFC and subsequently the Board of Governors had been shaped by GFC's longstanding committee on Native studies.

The proposal calls for a bachelor of arts degree program in Native studies to be complemented by a unique system of student services which would address the particular needs of Native students, thus providing for increased accessibility to the University and its programs for these students. In addition, the School of Native Studies is to be a major academic unit, consolidating and expanding the University's resources, research and education in Native studies.

The establishment of the School is subject to the provision of special funding by the provincial government for the initial five-year period. It is estimated that the total operating costs of the program during that period will be $6.9 million.

Published Summer 1984.

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