'I belong in academia' Indigenous grad students eager for summer school

Ontario's Indigenous Mentorship Network's inaugural summer school program is this week at Laurentian University in Sudbury. It's part of an ambitious undertaking that looks to grow the next generation of indigenous health scholars through mentorship and tackling health problems within First Nations communities.
The Indigenous Health Lab at Western University, pictured, is part of the Indigenous Mentorship Network's summer school program, at Laurentian June 11 to 15. (@ImnOntario/Twitter)
The first time Alberta-born Vanessa Ambtman-Smith tried to get her master's degree, it didn't go well. 

The degree was in health leadership studies and she was working with seasoned health professionals who couldn't wrap their minds around how traditional healing and modern medicine could work together. 

"I was experiencing some pretty strong resistance to being able to incorporate an Indigenous world view into the world," said Ambtman-Smith. "And I had to withdraw, because I didn't have a place there."

She took a break from her studies, crossed the country and found a program that was a better fit, under Indigenous health scholar Chantelle Richmond at Western University in London, Ont.

Many of them will be first-generation students, like I was... I was going into uncharted territory.- Jen  Walker, Indigenous mentor and Canada Research Chair for Indigenous Health
Vanessa Ambtman-Smith is one of 25 Indigenous grad students taking part in Ontario's Indigenous Mentorship Network's summer school in Sudbury. (Vanessa Ambtman-Smith)
Richmond told Ambtman-Smith not only was there a place for her in the master's program, but that she'd also be supported if she wanted to pursue her PhD looking at how to create safer health spaces by including traditional healing rooms in hospitals and health centres. 

"I get goosebumps when I think about that because that is the complete opposite experience of what I had out west, and that's a really big reason why this mentorship network is so important."

Ambtman-Smith's is one early success story of Ontario's Indigenous Mentorship Network, a project that includes the province's first Indigenous-led health training network — an ambitious undertaking that looks to grow the next generation of Indigenous health scholars by tackling health problems within First Nations communities.

First in family to go to university

Jennifer Walker is the new Canada Research Chair of Indigenous health at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. (supplied)
This week the first-ever Ontario Indigenous Mentorship Network (IMN) summer school in Sudbury, Ont. gets underway with 25 grad students, including Ambtman-Smith, and 10 mentors including professors and elders. 

"[It's] really about building a sense of collective identity," explained Jen Walker, one of the mentors and the Canada Research Chair for Indigenous Health at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

"Many of them will be first-generation students, like I was. I was the first in my family to go to university, then I went to graduate school and no one in my family knew much about that," explained Walker.

"I was going into uncharted territory — which is the case for many Indigenous students. So it's a time when they can be with mentors and each other."

The school will also include practical lessons, like resume building, how to do community-based research and how to balance being a community member and researcher simultaneously.

The summer school runs June 11 to 15 at Laurentian University.

About the Author

Jackie Sharkey

Associate Producer, CBC KW

Jackie Sharkey has worked all over the country with the CBC over the past decade, including Kelowna, Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, NU. She frequently reports on the arts and is particularly interested in stories where consumer and environmental issues intersect.