Nova Scotia

SMU appoints Aboriginal student adviser to help Indigenous students

The disappearance and murder of Saint Mary’s University student Loretta Saunders in February 2014 was the catalyst behind the creation of this key role.

Adviser will help Indigenous students navigate their university life

Raymond Sewell, Aboriginal student adviser (left) and Isaiah Bernard, co-president of the SMU Indigenous student society. (Aya Al-Hakim)

An Aboriginal student adviser was appointed at Saint Mary's University this year to help support and engage Indigenous students at the university.

Raymond Sewell, a SMU alumni who graduated with a master's degree in Atlantic Canadian studies in 2014, will be filling this new role on Monday.

"We come from disadvantageous position most of the time so we might not have the confidence in ourselves even to meet with the institution and its professors," said Sewell. "So I will be a conduit between them to open dialogue and make each realize they're equal in value."

Some of his main duties will be to support students who are struggling with university life and to develop cultural events, graduation events and other events that recognize and celebrate Indigenous peoples.

Catalyst

The disappearance and murder of Saint Mary's University student Loretta Saunders in February 2014 was the catalyst for the creation of the role.

Saunders was a young Inuk woman who highlighted the tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. She was also a student who experienced significant gaps in the programs and services available to Aboriginal students at the university, according to a SMU report.

Loretta Saunders was studying the issue of murdered or missing aboriginal women when she was killed. (Gofundme)

In response to the tragedy, former university president Colin Dodds established a task force to come up with new ideas and initiatives that could "enhance learning opportunities and the education experience for Aboriginal students," according to the report.

The Aboriginal student adviser position was one of the main initiatives recommended by the task force in 2014.

Finding a sense of home

Isaiah Bernard, co-president of the SMU Indigenous student society, says it took a while to hire someone for the position because "we had to make sure what type of person we wanted and what he has to do."

"I know that students are more comfortable talking to an Indigenous person," said Bernard, who is also an arts student at SMU.

Bernard said before, when Indigenous students had issues at home or were struggling academically, they would go to the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre for help or find another Indigenous student to talk to.

"We come from communities where we know and support each other and when we come to university it's different," said Bernard. "This Indigenous student society is like a First Nations community inside a university and that's what we wanted to begin with — a sense of home."

About the Author

Aya Al-Hakim

Reporter

Aya Al-Hakim is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. She can be reached at aya.al-hakim@cbc.ca.