January 1, 2013, I attended a New Years party at Dr. Alan Shavers’ place. At the time he was the President of TRU. There were some amazing leaders from Kamloops there who are always full of great stories and the panoramic view of town was simply incredible. I remember standing by the window taking in the view when Alan came over to chat. These chats were always full of lessons and sometimes nerdy stories. But this one we talked about New Years and that a theme was transformation. As always we got to talking about what these things meant for the TRU community. And on that day, we focussed on the need to create a transformative educational experience for our students. What this meant in practical terms was making sure that we put actual resources as a University toward providing opportunities for students to experience leadership. I remember the very first time I met Alan. He was newly announced as the incoming President of TRU. He showed up to the Indigenous Gathering Place with Nathan Matthew. He wanted an opportunity to meet with Indigenous students. I asked him very point blank why doesn’t the University provide any funding to Indigenous student groups. His response was equally blunt. He said “This year, the University had the following speakers: Phil Fontaine, Ed John, and Stewart Phillip. How many students attended those events?” In a room of about 40 students, TWO students put up their hands! My heart sank, my face went red. Alan continued, “so you see, it’s difficult for the University to justify putting these resources forward when there is so little participation by Indigenous students. What we would require is for events to be put on and some record of participation by Indigenous students.” I was furious. It was the absolute worst foot to get off on with a new University President. The words stung. Not because of the way they were delivered, he was gentle, but because of their truth. Those words burned into my memory. The next year, as President of the First Nations’ Student Society, I worked with the Students’ Union Aboriginal Rep to put together $4000 to host our own events. That year, we were able to host TRU’s first Pow Wow, Aboriginal Awareness Week, and the Story Tellers’ Gala. All of the events were highly successful with over 1000 participants. Since then they have grown with significant support from the University. The year after that I was elected to the Board of Governors at TRU where I was able to advocate for Indigenous students at the highest level of the University. The first time I ran for the Board of Governors, I lost the election. The second time, I was acclaimed, or so I thought. I remember on the day an article came out in Secwepemc News about the great news, I received an email that there was going to be an election for Board of Governors. My heart sank. They sent me an email clearly stating I was acclaimed. All emails to the University went unanswered. Finally, I retained an incredible Secwepemc Lawyer, Katherine Hensel to intervene on my behalf. Her letter was responded to right away and the University said that they had made a mistake and a paper nomination sat on a desk unacknowledged. When they found it, they decided to rectify it by having an election without notifying me. I was pretty angry but after discussions with Katherine, we decided that the appropriate thing to do was to run the election and win. I wouldn’t be satisfied any other way.
As I had mentioned earlier, the Ch’nook Scholars was significantly influential in my University experience. In my first year as a Ch’nook Scholar, we participated in a Business Case competition in Prince George. My team won first. One of the stated reasons by the judges was that our analysis was complete, our recommendations sound, and that we were the only team to develop a business case for our solution, which meant financial projections. In short, the case was that a company had wanted to develop a mine but the local First Nation was proposing costly environmental mitigation measures. I was able to calculate that the local First Nation measure could in fact be accommodated and that the mine would remain significantly profitable over the life cycle, even if the price of coal dropped by half. The experience gave me confidence that Economics was indeed the right path, if a lonely one, because I learned that the ability to quantify social issues would be a valuable skill for Indigenous communities. It meant have a framework for problem solving and solution building to complex social problems. For me Economics brings a level of clarity in an otherwise very chaotic world. As I’ve moved further through the world I’ve learned that the ability to build a business case for policy and legal issues is a rare skill in a business world that puts a lot of emphasis on hard skills like doing math. It was also then that I knew in working with my team, we were leaders among incredible leaders. When I graduated University I was nominated as the Valedictorian for the Ch’nook Scholars. I remember the day I was going to go down for the ceremonies, my started on my car died. At the time I had no hydro, no cell phone, no internet and so no way to contact anyone who might be able to help. I didn’t get to make my speech which sucked, but that’s what happens when you’re a poor student.
Another incredible opportunity came about because of the network I had built through Ch’nook Scholars. In the Summer of 2012 I worked on Canada’s first textbook on the first subject of Indigenous business. It remains the only comprehensive academic book on the subject. In March 2012, Hafiz Rahman from TRU heard of a forum being hosted by the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business in Edmonton. He put my name forward and I was invited to attend. The Purdy Crawford Chair was interested in hearing from Indigenous students across the country on their experiences in business school. I remember how sweaty my hands felt when I raised them to make the comment that we should have a textbook on the subject of Indigenous business. I knew just enough back then through reading about property rights that the rules set up under the Indian Act created a very different regulatory environment for businesses located on Indian reserves. I also remember the voice of colonialism whispering in my ear “who are Indigenous people to deserve their own special book?” But thankfully I had also recently met Laurie Sterritt and she shared with me a quote by Marianne Williamson, she told me to print it and keep it with me. And I told the voice in my head, who are we not to deserve a book about us? It’s overdue. My feedback impressed Dr. Keith Brown enough that he invited me to Nova Scotia to work on the textbook over the summer. I took up the offer. Dr. Keith Brown told me when I arrived that he wanted it to be my best summer student experience ever. It sure was. I made some incredible friends and had a chance to see Unamaki (Cape Breton Island). I spent the summer putting together the Table of Contents for the textbook and creating a report justifying why I thought the book should be created that way. The textbook was published in May 2015.
Riding in my indian van.
While I was a student at TRU, I noticed how the International students could all speak a different language. And that they spoke their languages publicly and without shame. I decided that I would relearn to speak my own language, Secwepemctsin. I learned it in Elementary but by the time highschool came the curriculum was not challenging enough. I remember at the time that I had a lot of anxiety about the decision because on the rez there is a lot of shame about speaking our own language. People still say “holy, real deep indian” or they snicker when people aren’t able to pronounce certain sounds. I’m glad I made the decision though because being Secwepemc provides me with a deep sense of purpose and power to go about the world. I decided that the colonial legacy wouldn’t stop me from knowing and speaking my own language.
So, at 6 pm and 8 pm three nights a week, I would open the slide door of my burgundy red Ford Aerostar van, grab a spare battery and jumper cables, pop the hood, and give myself a jump and head to the Tkemlups reserve for Secwepemctsin classes. I used to jump myself with a spare battery I took from my dads and my moms jumper cables I “stole” from her. I did this for about 4 months because I couldn’t afford to buy a new battery for $100. Anyway, Flora Sampson and Janice Billy were my teachers for the evening classes and they were very good. I was able to pick up the language and I was provided with materials to learn from home. That summer I also worked as a summer student at the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society. It was such a valuable experience.
I worked on the First Voices Secwepemctsin app which is a digital repository of words and clips on how to pronounce them. For two weeks I listened to Secwepemctsin clips and gave them an English and Secwepemctsin file name. The app is available for download and I use it nearly every day. I also had the opportunity to take immersion classes with Mona Jules and Rhona Bowe in medicine making. Becoming fluent in Secwepemctsin has been healing and our language provides a priceless source of guidance and knowledge for much of the work that I’ve undertaken in the last few years.
T’ult in Secwepemctsin is the transformation of energy into matter.