Portrait of a Franco-Aboriginal youth in want of illustration

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SUDBURY/NORTH BAY — Most Aboriginal youth are comfortable with their identity, according to a study by Statistics Canada, published in 2021. But what about the environment in which they evolve? Recent research indicates that in their studies or in the labor market, Aboriginal youth still face a considerable gap compared to non-Aboriginal people. Stigma and lack of representation are often to blame. Within universities, students observe a lack of representation, which, however, is necessary for the foundation of their identity.

While it is often a question of art, as a tool of expression and representation for Aboriginal communities, it is not the only solution. Indigenous peoples have often been assigned the role of artistic and multi-talented peoples. Even though this stereotype retains a part of reality, Aboriginal culture has more complex elements. How to be represented when the wealth and diversity of these peoples are barely audible whispers?

It is obvious that the learning of native culture by foreigners is part of the process. But what we call culture here is part of a broader process of identification and representation in public space. What interests us is how the university system, for example, participates in the representation of its aboriginal students?

This youth finds itself today in an identity ambivalence, not two-dimensional – Franco-Ontarian on one side and Aboriginal on the other – but plural.

The Importance of Indigenous Identity

Art is a way of representing Aboriginal identity, but for Page Chartrand, an Aboriginal studies student at Nipissing University, “Art is a way of expressing yourself, but it’s not everything. We must not reduce ourselves to a purely artistic culture. We’re not just here to entertain.”

The 21-year-old from the Algonquin Nation is already a complete artist. “I do painting and murals, beadwork, percussion, powwow dancing, drawing and sewing. »

Various traditional Page Chartrand Aboriginal creations. Courtesy

Page Chartrand says she’s not just an artist and her identity is more complex than that. For her, it is difficult to be represented in society: “I have to dig a lot of representations to recognize myself and that is never satisfactory. I am a woman, a francophone, an aboriginal, a queer… and all her ways are not accepted even in our normalized white, mostly English-speaking society”.

“My identity is my culture, I am attached to it” –Nathalie Larocque

Nathalie Larocque is Franco-Ontarian and Métis. student in 3and year at Laurentian University, she studied Aboriginal psychology and social work.

“My identity is my culture, I am attached to it. It is true that we lack representation, but I am surrounded by friends who are interested in my culture and in my practices, asking to participate. »

For the young woman from Sturgeon Falls, Laurentian University offers opportunities for the natives. “I think there are tools for Aboriginal youth to express themselves today. At Laurentian, with the study center for Aboriginal students and the Aboriginal student circle, we have the representation we need. we do there workshops learn certain cultural practices and that includes art. »

Laurentine University. Credit: Rudy Chabannes

And to add: “We also offer resources and tools for Aboriginal youth to have answers to their questions. I can say with certainty that there is mutual help”.

Nathalie Larocque is delighted with the opportunities that exist at her institution. “I met young students who realized that they were Aboriginal not long ago. They didn’t necessarily know where to start, and that puts their identity in question. I am happy to help you discover yourself. We have to start somewhere and with the resources at our disposal. »

For young Métis, the system is improving and so are the people. She considers that she has the chance to be able to study at the university and gain access to knowledge that she would not have discovered otherwise. As does Page Chartrand who says she is very happy to learn, but qualifies by saying, “I find it distressing to have to pay for things we should have known since childhood, and couldn’t, because we were robbed of their knowledge.”

A university system by and for the privileged?

However, the university system is not fully adapted to the needs of indigenous youth, according to the two students.

“We are constantly discovering our culture”, explains Nathalie Larocque. “You shouldn’t be afraid to find out, by all means.” According to Statistics Canada, “to promote cultural identity, it is essential to enable Aboriginal communities to develop solutions they deem relevant.”

According to Nathalie Larocque, even if non-Aboriginal youth are increasingly open, there are always some people who will judge and criticize them. “We are criticized for our so-called advantages. It is because these students do not form their own opinion and hear old prejudices still present. »

“They don’t realize that where they’re sitting is our territory,” she says. “Today we only have a few spots across the country and are often far away”.

For Page Chartrand, “Being an Aboriginal student at a university that is not Aboriginal is difficult and the services offered are always less than the services for others”. She explains that she left Laurentian to go to Nipissing because her university programs were cut.

The student worked hard to improve the representation of the Franco-Aboriginal people at Laurentian University. “I was president of the Association of Indigenous Students, indigenous representative of the Association of Francophone Students, indigenous representative in the Student Senate and indigenous student representative in the Senate subcommittee for the review of indigenous content. »

Page Chartrand is a student
Chartrand page. Courtesy

In addition to assisting the Indigenous Affairs Law Committee, Page has also served on the Senate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion subcommittee.

She continues: “If I didn’t do it, no one did and the University always asked more of us”.

The university aims to be an inclusive environment open to debate. What Page Chartrand regrets is that the message is not clear: “Right now, we’re surviving. The environment in which we evolved asks us to do the work in the place of the people who should be doing it.”

“We have to decide if we still want to tolerate non-indigenous establishments, tolerate the violence that is still present in institutions, while we wait to expand and bring this information back to our communities. »

When I have a teacher who is racist, violent with me or insensitive to our traumas, it is very difficult – Chartrand page

However, she says she is extremely grateful for learning things that she couldn’t have discovered on her own. However, she wonders if the stigma present is worth it. “When I have a teacher who is racist, violent with me or insensitive to our traumas, it is very difficult. We want to go further and learn non-indigenous knowledge to improve our lives, but suffering in this environment is difficult. »

She explains that there are many privileges in academic institutions. For her, the needs of Aboriginal youth are secondary concerns.

Nathalie Larocque goes so far as to say that it is not uncommon for teachers to share false information. “I tell them when it’s wrong, however, they tell me that in the books it’s written like that, except it’s my culture, I know what I’m talking about. »

The two students think about working in the school system later. A way to change the underrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in academia. It is also a way to break down prejudices and allow more Aboriginal youth to obtain degrees and thus perhaps have more universities by and for Aboriginal people. There are currently nine Indigenous settlements in Ontario recognized under the Indigenous Settlements Act of 2017.

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