By Neil Powers
Tucked away in the busy world of classes at Centennial College, a tiny program is leaving its mark on students and how they understand Canada.
The college’s Indigenous Studies program started with one faculty in 2014 and offers four courses. Indigenous people (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) and their history are a key part of understanding Canada today.
When you walk into the Indigenous Studies Current Issues class, you notice something different. Indigenous faculty Shannon Winterstein and the class are sitting in a circle. No textbooks. There are a lot of conversations.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is this can’t be learned (just) in books,” Winterstein said. She includes guest speakers, videos, lively class discussions and when possible, field trips as part of the learning process.
Stereotypes will be challenged. Students are encouraged to go to Indigenous events and to visit the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Winterstein tells students about the Toronto-based Dodem Kanonhsa, a learning centre dedicated to building better understanding between Indigenous and non-indigenous people.
For example, Winterstein’s class looks at the history of residential schools and how the effects of trauma from the schools can be passed generation-to-generation.
Students energized by the program
“Every class is a new topic,” student Isabel Terrell says. “The stories of (Indigenous people) not being told and they need to be.” She likes the in-depth learning about and from the voices of Indigenous people.
“I hope to spread awareness pertaining to issues about Indigenous people,” Christian Cruz says. “I think that not enough is being done in terms of spreading awareness in terms of issues going on right now with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”
“I didn’t realize the struggles that Indigenous people are going through,” he says. “It really opened my eyes.”
“I hope to spread awareness pertaining to issues about Indigenous people,” Christian Cruz said. “I think that not enough is being done in terms of spreading awareness in terms of issues going on right now with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”
“It’s interesting and a lot more hands-on way that the learning is approached,” Terrell said. “The way that it’s taught is in a thoughtful way.”
Centennial graduate Chelsea Surette identifies as Indigenous. She sees how the Indigenous Studies program added depth to her work as a child therapist with Native and Child Family Services in Toronto.
“The class gave me a better understanding what the people are going through,” Surette says. “What can I do to support them and what can I do to better help them out? It benefited me with the career that I have now.”
“I’d encourage anyone to take it,” Surette says about Indigenous Studies class.
Program takes off with vital backing
Shannon Winterstein originally worked as faculty in Centennial’s School of Business. She was invited to help develop the Indigenous Studies program and became its first faculty and program lead. The faculty has increased to six staff.
A key part of the support for the Indigenous Studies program comes from Centennial’s Aboriginal Education Council. It is co-chaired by Centennial president Ann Buller and vice-president Craig Stephenson. It includes several Indigenous representatives including Susie Jones of the Residential School Survivor’s Society and Carolyn King, former elected Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
Becoming more aware
Winterstein closes with a hope for students in the program. “Students become aware there’s much they don’t know,” she says. “I hope the program teaches them to learn more.”