Student RISE Campaign Celebrates Indigenous Strength and Culture

Artist Rebecca Migwans sells her creations at the Indigenous Creations: Arts and Crafts Expo on Jan. 14, 2016. (Chris Roussakis Photo)

Carleton’s Aboriginal Service Centre (ASC) launched a new month-long campaign in January to celebrate Indigenous culture with the campus community.

RISE 2016, which stands for Revitalizing Indigenous Strength and Education, is a fresh take on what has previously been called Aboriginal Awareness Month at Carleton. The initiative began in 2007 as a day-long celebration of Aboriginal culture and later spanned a week before becoming a month-long event in 2012.

Ash Courchene, ASC co-ordinator, says he wanted the campaign to better reflect the values of Carleton’s Indigenous community and was happy to see a diversity of students attend activities.

“It was just about bringing people together and learning from one another, and sort of adding a humanizing effect to the Indigenous identity.’’

The ASC is a student centre which advocates for Aboriginal issues on campus and strives to improve the quality of Aboriginal student experiences at Carleton by providing peer support.

RISE 2016 included 10 different events, from a mental health panel to a hip hop show featuring Indigenous artists. The events were organized with support from a number of departments, student groups and Indigenous groups across campus.

Drew Douglas, a fourth-year women’s and gender studies student, attended a blanket exercise as part of RISE on Jan. 12, where he learned about colonization, treaty-making and residential schools.

During the activity, students stood on blankets representing Indigenous lands and were asked to remove some of them as they read stories about Canada’s history.

“It shows through history how settler encroachment pushed native people onto these little postage stamps of land after taking into account population crashes due to disease and other genocidal acts,” says Courchene.

While Douglas had heard about many of the issues addressed in the blanket exercise, he says he was struck by the “visualization of how much land is currently given to the native population and how much of it was there before.”

Indigenous student artists also had a chance to showcase their creations at an expo on Jan. 14. Handmade moccasins, beaded jewelry and bow ties created by about 10 different artists were placed on display for students and staff in the River Building.

The student-driven campaign gives Indigenous students an opportunity to be leaders and “share their culture, their identity, their ways of knowing with the Carleton community,” says Naomi Sarazin, Aboriginal cultural liaison officer at the Centre for Aboriginal Culture and Education (CACE).

While Sarazin says there have always been students at Carleton who have shown interest in learning about Indigenous culture, she has seen the numbers growing.

“I think it has to do a lot with what’s going on outside of Carleton too and the Aboriginal awareness that’s growing across the country.’’

The new federal Liberal government has made a number of promises to Indigenous peoples, including implementing all 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which spent six years addressing the legacy of Canada’s residential school system.

At a panel discussion during the last week of the RISE campaign, students and community members had a chance to learn more about the issue from Shirley Gagnon, who attended St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., when she was five years old. The school is notorious for using the electric chair on children.

Courchene says the goal of the panel was to inform people about the importance of the TRC and the impact of residential schools.

“When people learn the truths that we hold, I think relationships can be better built,” Courchene says, adding that he sees RISE 2016 as an act of decolonization.

“There’s not so much tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as there has been in the past,” he says. “Hopefully this adds to finding that peaceful coexistence.”

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Kirsten Fenn

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