Edmonton

Indigenous students dazzled by surprise Christmas presents

About 120 of the Indigenous students at the University of Alberta thought they were sitting down to a Christmas lunch, but were surprised when it came with a special gift.

Jewelry company gives earrings for students to give as gifts

Karrie Auger showing the earrings she received at the Aboriginal Student Services Centre Christmas lunch. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

About 120 of the Indigenous students at the University of Alberta thought they were sitting down to a Christmas lunch, but were surprised when it came with a special gift.

The students, who are part of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre, received two pairs of crystal earrings with the intention they can hand one pair over as a gift to friends or family.

"They're so beautiful and so sparkly, they're pretty magical," said Karrie Auger, 31.

Auger is at university in Edmonton gaining the credentials to go back to her home community of Wabasca, Alta., where she hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams.

She hasn't chosen her career yet while she concentrates on her studies.

The gift she and the others collected at the lunch is meant to acknowledge their ambition and dedication.

Aboriginal Student Services Director Shana Dion says the partnership with a jewelry company is a way to acknowledge the students hard work at Christmas. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

"I've heard their story in how they've become to be in post-secondary and the trials and tribulations they've been through," said Shana Dion, the director of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre.

The centre provides mentorship as well as cultural support and programming for Indigenous students.

It embraced the idea as a way to ease some of the additional financial stresses and anxiety that can happen at Christmas time.

The students were chosen by jewelry company Hillberg & Berk as part of their "Making Spirits Bright" program.

The Canadian company has made Ashley Callingbull from Enoch First Nation the face of its new line and she was there to hand out the gift boxes.

"It's something that you don't normally see, so by doing that I'm breaking barriers and being a role model," said Callingbull, who made a name for herself when crowned Mrs. Universe in 2015.

Ashley Callingbull says she hopes her story of finding a way out of poverty will inspire others. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Her message of climbing out of poverty is one Auger can relate to. 

"We've had a lot of things to overcome," she said, adding it's uncomfortable to talk about her family's history in residential schools, but it's a common theme for many Indigenous people.

Auger and the other students were encouraged to keep one pair of the stud earrings and give the other pair to someone special at Christmas.

Many said they would be surprising their mother or grandmother with them.

Auger said hers is a different choice, but an easy choice.

"Definitely my best friend. She has been my best friend since I was 15 or 16 and she has been with me this whole time and so supportive and she also loves a little bit of bling too," Auger said.

Her friend, also now back in school, has had her own challenges of late which makes Auger even more grateful for the earrings she can give as a gift.

"Nice to honour her and be able to say I recognize how hard you're working too and I love you so much."