A Family Of Graduates
“Sixteen strangers who didn’t know each other’s names walked into that classroom last October. By April, we had grown into a family. We may have graduated as individuals, but we did it together. We completed that whole program as a family.”
– David Cliffe, Wei Wai Kum: graduate and class speaker(by popular vote), 2020/2021 Vancouver Island University(VIU) Stewardship Technician Training Program(STTP)
Graduates of the 2020/2021 VIU STTP:
David Cliffe, Wamish Roberts (Wei Wai Kum); Cedar Frank, Caelan McLean, Candace Newman, Zeb Savoie-Velos (K’omoks); Stephen Glendale, Steven Glendale (Da’naxda’xw Awetlala); Christina Green, Mike Stadnyk (Tlowitsis); Krystal Henkel, Terri Wells(We Wai Kai); Charles(Judge) Humchitt( Kwakiutl); Chip Mountain, Thomas Levac Jr. (Mamalilikulla); Jacob Nelson(Quatsino)
At a casual glance, it looked like a typical 2021 Zoom meeting: a shifting mosaic of grainy faces collected together on computer screens, and the usual litany of “Can you hear Me’s”, “Turn off your mutes”, internet slips, and other technical glitches, all disrupting the flow of conversation. Scattered across the upper half of Vancouver Island and further afield, some attendees were at home, some were in their offices, and some had children and pets peering curiously at the pictures moving across the screen in front of them
But the graduation that more than eighty people had gathered together to witness was anything but typical. In a spacious but windowless hotel conference room in Campbell River, sixteen students and some Nanwakolas Council staff were gathered in front of a large “Congratulations!” banner slung across one wall. Twinkling fairy lights and decorations had transformed the otherwise bland chamber into a festive and celebratory space. Celebrations were in order: in a first for the program, everyone in this third cohort of the VIU STTP had successfully completed the program, passing every course with flying colours.
Savoring the anticipation of receiving their diplomas, the beaming students waved excitedly at four different screens in the room, enthusiastically calling out to instructors, friends and proud family members. Everyone was beaming. Occasionally, they erupted into outbursts of disbelieving, joyful laughter. They had successfully made it through six very tough months of hard work, both physically and academically. Happiness and pride reverberated around the room, and emanated from every screen.
Fulfilling the Vision
Finally, the graduation ceremony for the 2020/2021 STTP class got underway. Prayers and songs were followed by acknowledgements of the hard work by all involved, and of the land and waters that the students had vowed to help protect on behalf of their respective Nations.
In his opening comments, Nanwakolas President Dallas Smith expressed what many might have been thinking: “I am feeling a lot of emotion right now. Last time we celebrated graduates of the STTP, we were in the bighouse, all face to face. But this is still a powerful moment for all of us, and I would like to thank each of you for making it a reality.”
Dallas reminded everyone that when Nanwakolas Council first began its work in 2007, that work was largely confined to land use planning. “We realized over the years that we needed boots on the ground and eyes out on the water,” he continued. “We understood we couldn’t complete our vision without people like you becoming part of a network of stewards, working across our territories, who understand what needs to be done to take care of our lands and waters. The work that you will be doing will help us immeasurably to plan for the future and protect our territories.”
Wei Wai Kum Chief Christopher Roberts echoed those words: “What you do is so important. As stewards and Guardians, you will be at the front lines of our territories, gathering information and bringing it back to us. You are the game-changers. This is how we go about reclaiming our stewardship responsibilities and rights in our territories. I thank you for it. I can’t begin to say how much of an achievement this is, especially during Covid,” concluded Chief Roberts. “You will retain these friendships, this network, and the skills and experience you have acquired, for all your lives.”
All for one, one for all
Last January, in Guardian in Training: Connected, Cultural, Caring and Commited, students and staff involved with this cohort talked about some unique aspects of its delivery, and how those factors were already contributing to its success just five weeks into the program.
A shorter, full-time program with financial and logistical support for the students, a wrap around team of support staff, and a strong cultural approach to the instruction all lent themselves to the students feeling strong and confident. Those factors kept the students highly motivated to show up every day on time, complete all of the coursework, and see the program through, even during challenges such and illness and bereavement.
Equally important, the students had created their own agreement with each other, called the Bakwam Accord. They promised to respect each other, the staff, and the instructors. Perhaps the single most important commitment they made was to ensure that every person in the cohort would have to succeed: that it was their job, and their commitment, to help each other through.
After the graduation ceremony was over, some of the students and support staff reflected on how much that had contributed to the whole class successfully completing the program. David Cliffe, 49 years old, is a former commercial fisherman who became a Wei Wai Kum Guardian in 2020. David signed up for the program because, he says, “As a person, I wanted to be a better human being. As a Guardian, I want to keep working on changing the world.”
“The Bakwam Accord was really important,” adds David. “We knew that we would be taking what we learned out into the world. How we would behave was so important. The Bakwam Accord helped us live that way every day through the program, together. We learned to share with each other, to work together safely and respectfully ad to help each others progress.”
Candace Newman agrees: “Each of us had different strengths, and we all learned to use those strengths for each other,” she observes. “If someone was struggling, the rest of us were there to lift them up. We worked together to make sure we would graduate as a team. Of course, I think everyone would have succeeded individually, but we were so much stronger together.”
“We all came from different ages and backgrounds,” adds Christina Green, “but not one single person in our class came away learning more or less than anyone else. That key value of respect -we all had that within us when we walked in the doors, so that made it easy to become one.” For Christina personally, that team approach had benefits in multiple ways, “The introduction to parks course was hands down the most difficult course I have ever done,” she says. “I don’t know the first thing about it, it was completely blank slate. It was so academically grueling- I honestly didn’t know if I could pass it.”
Others in the course did have a knack for it: “Chip Mountain just got it, he was amazing. He really helped me through.” The students, says Christina, decided that if one team-mate wasn’t getting it, no-one was: “We just took a lot of pauses over those eight days to make sure everyone was keeping up, and if they weren’t, to catch them up.”
Of course, Christina found strengths and capabilities of her own that she in turn could offer her classmates. That was as much a gift to her as learning from them: “I did not previously have good experiences in education. Before I walked in through those doors last October to start the program, I had trouble accepting that I am a smart, capable person,” says Christina. “But then I started seeing how much everyone respected and trusted me and my abilities. They would ask me questions, and I could answer them. That sparked the fire in my eyes to see myself as a very smart and capable person. It changed everything.”
Noelle Hanuse provided wellbeing support to the students throughout the program. “It was such a pure pleasure to be part of this amazing group,” she wrote on the graduation message board. “They are so inspiring and full of life and promise.” Cultural adviser Gloria Cole felt the same way: “Those students just held each other up, right from the beginning. It was such a beautiful thing to witness.”
Onwards and Upwards
At the graduation ceremony, Nanwakolas President Dallas Smith made a point of acknowledging the funders who had made it possible not only to undertake the program, but for those not already working as full time Guardians to follow it up with a work placement with their Nations over the 2021 summer season, putting into practice all their newfound skills and qualifications.”
“I’d like to thank VIU for helping us keep people at home, in jobs in our own communities,” said Dallas. “Thank you to EleV- Mastercard Foundation for stepping up to invest in our dreams. It’s good to see corporations asking how they can help us, without telling us what to do. Nature United also invests in longstanding relationships with us like this. Not least of all, I thank the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training for playing by our song sheet, working to our way of delivering this program and not asking us to fit into one of yours. “Finally,” he concluded “I thank the students for the return on all of the investments: for your commitment, your respect for the funders and the program, and by graduating, showing that it has been more than worthwhile.”
Flushed with new-found confidence in their capability, several of the students are planning to further their post-secondary education in stewardship-related studies. Chip Mountain, who says “there wasn’t one part of the program that I didn’t enjoy!” is planning to update some of the courses next winter, after his summer working with Mamalilikulla First Nation. In 2022, he plans to enroll for VIU’s Resource Management Officer Technician Diploma.
Indulging her discovered passion for archaeology, Christina will begin her BA in Anthropology this fall. She hopes to keep working summers for Tlowitsis as a Guardian: “I want to just help whatever way I can to support protecting the territory, and growing the team, encouraging the youth to get involved and take up opportunities like this one.”
The next cohort
For people who are thinking about either beginning a career in stewardship or expanding on their existing skills and experience, VIU and Nanwakolas Council are already working on creating future training opportunities.
Maureen Thomas is VIU’s STTP Coordinator. She is thrilled with the outcome of this cohort: “We consulted with many elders at VIU and in the community when we were putting this together, and they all said, create a pathway to higher learning, and build capacity in the communities, by building a family. That’s exactly what happened. The students created the family. All of them have plans to work in their communities, and the fact that several of them are continuing their studies is a huge pay-off for everyone’s hard work.”
Maureen wasn’t able to attend graduation: “I didn’t get to say goodbye! I do want to tell them this. In Coast Salish cultural instruction, you learn that in life you will experience joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness. That is life. Somewhere in between is a spiritual and emotional balance that is important to remember. It is up to them to take what they have learned out into life and use it to manage that balance, and to grow what they have learned. If they remember that, and how they found that balance during the program, in the hard times as well as the good ones. They will always remember that anything is possible.”
Anything is possible
For anyone out there wondering if the STTP program is something they could or should try doing, the answer, says Charlene Everson, Nanwakolas STTP Project Coordinator, is: “How do you know if you don’t try? Just do it!” In all seriousness, says Charlene, the program provides good, solid transferable skills, even for someone who doesn’t end up as a Guardian.
“It’s a real pathway to all sorts of work options, whether in stewardship or otherwise. There are jobs waiting for everyone who does this, or like some are doing, it’s a stepping stone to even more qualifications in whatever field inspires your passion, maybe science, maybe archaeology, whatever it is.” Charlene emphasizes, as do all her colleagues, that the STTP is an Indigenous-designed, led and delivered program for Indigenous students. “It is such a safe, culturally strong and supportive environment. You make friends and become part of a lifelong network.”
Angela Davidson, a former graduate of the program, attended all the classes with the students as part of the staff support system. She is absolutely unequivocal about the magic of the program: “Such a core aspect of it is the space for connection between the students to come together as a way to overcome the challenges they might face, or their negative experiences in the past,” says Angela. “That sense of building family – it’s just about as important as getting the diploma. It should be on the program posters!”
Angela also echoes Charlene’s thoughts: “It is such a unique program, as an Indigenous program. Being with people like you, with the same cultural background, similar experiences, makes such a huge difference to being able to do the work. You come out of it feeling like you can do anything.” She points out that one of the students plans to study sports therapy at the University of Victoria, and another is going to combine working in stewardship in the summers with opening his own auto mechanic’s business. “You see, you can do anything with the skills and confidence you gain through your hard work.”
There is no doubt it is hard work, say all of the students. “But it is so worthwhile,” says Candace. For people who might be fearful whether they are capable, she says simply: “Don’t be afraid. You can do it. Anyway, think of it this way – taking care of our lands and waters is far more important than any of our own personal fears.”
Everything in the program caters to how Indigenous students want to learn, she says: “We are very hands-on, and the instructors really worked with us to help us learn that way. Even the academic parks course, the instructor took that on board and worked with us on practical scenarios to get across the content rather than just lecturing us from the books.”
“Just jump in with both feet!” exclaims Chip Mountain enthusiastically. “You get to go to work every day with amazing people, all with different backgrounds but similar interests to yours. I know it might feel like unknown territory but the people around you will soon change that. They will help make you comfortable so quickly.”
“Put it this way,” muses David Cliffe. “I get to go to work every day in this job as a Guardian where I hear the birds sing, I feel the sun or the rain on my face, I hear the wind and the water and feel the energy of the forest. It’s all so beautiful. And you get to keep working on changing the world at the same time. How could you not want to be a part of it?”