Indigenous college program in North Bay changed her life, says student

A 20-year-old woman wants to help the college she's attending because the program she's enrolled in has changed her life.

Program needs 24 students annually to 'break even', enrolment is half that number says director

Darien Benjamins is sharing her story about finding herself through indigenous based education. The 20-year-old hopes it will pursue others to enrol in the Indigenous Wellness and Addictions Prevention program at Canadore College in North Bay, Ontario.

A 20-year-old woman wants to help the college she's attending because the program she's enrolled in has changed her life.

"Funding [is an issue] because there is not as high enrolment. I don't want to see it go downhill or anything and I think people need to know that it is here," said Darien Benjamins.

Benjamins is talking about the Indigenous Wellness and Addictions Prevention program (IWAP) at Canadore College in North Bay, Ontario. She's currently a second year student aiming to graduate with a diploma in June 2016. 

"I struggled a lot growing up at home ... I never really used to talk about a lot of things and I didn't really have a lot of support systems," she said.

She enrolled in IWAP last year to gain the skills to help others, and in the process she discovered her own roots. 

Connecting with Tsimshian roots

Benjamins has a mixed background. Her mother is German and Tsimshian from northern British Columbia and her father is Dutch. She grew up near her father's family in Port Hope, Ontario. The only real connection to her indigenous roots was through books.

"My father's side is very Christian so I grew up with that … Personally, indigenous [spirituality] interests me. All those teachings that I read about intrigued me. So yeah, I got confused a lot."

That confusion caused Benjamins to rebel as a teenager. "In high school I didn't do very well because I struggled a bit with addictions. I used to drink a lot."

On top of the academic teachings, Benjamins and her IWAP classmates are taught about culture and identity from an Ojibwe point of view. That learning concept is also known as land-based education.

We learn a lot about the importance of self care and the spiritual aspects of everything. It's not just clinical. It's also about being compassionate.- Darien Benjamins , second year IWAP student

"We have culture camps and we have sweat lodge [ceremonies]. We always learn in a circle and our professors are always very fair and everyone has a chance to share their experiences," she said. 

"It's very balanced. We learn a lot about the importance of self care and the spiritual aspects of everything. It's not just clinical. It's also about being compassionate."

"There is a lot of stereotypes in indigenous communities. A lot of people don't have a general understanding of what happened in the past so our professors talk about what happened with colonialism and how that has an effect [on indigenous] people today still," Benjamins said.

Benjamins' studies inspired her to make contact with her Tsimshian family, from Metlakatla First Nation, B.C.

"I went out this summer, actually, and went and met my granny for the first time out in Metlakatla. She introduced me to a lot of people in the community and she told me a lot of what she knew."

'Validity' and 'academic rigour'

Students are seen learning inside a teepee in a sharing circle format. A good portion of the course work in the Indigenous Wellness and Addictions Prevention Program is taught on the land. (Canadore College)

Mary Wabano is the Director of the First Peoples Centre at Canadore College.

"We've just undergone a review this year of the program. And again, enrolment is always a factor," she said.

"The unfortunate thing for not just this program, but other indigenous-based programs as well, there always seems to be this second guess about the quality," she said.

"There seems to be this perception both by mainstream people and by our own indigenous people that calls the question about program validity, about program quality in academic rigour." 

The IWAP program began in the early '90s as a one year locally certified course that addressed the needs of the neighbouring Nipissing First Nation. In 1999 it became a two year diploma that also has accreditation through the indigenous certification board of Canada.

While Wabano hasn't said if the program is in any danger she did say it is running a deficit.

The break even point would need to see 24 IWAP students enrolled.  The numbers of actual enrolment average just over half with the retention rate sitting at 88 percent.

Wabano says that colonialistic view needs to change, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's 94 recommendations, focussing on indigenous culture, language and education.

"Their calls to action talk about education institutes, colleges and universities being responsive to the legacy of residential schools and [how] it's continuing to have impacts on our communities, in our families, in individuals, and the total well being of all of us as indigenous people," Wabano said.

"When I hear about students who are reaching out and creating conversation about this, I think that is pretty awesome," she said, referring to Benjamins.

"These programs then are doing their job, you know, around preparing students to ask those critical questions … and really holding the college to account in terms of being responsive to the needs of First Nations people."

About the Author

Tiar Wilson was raised in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Manitoba. She's reported for APTN National News, CBC Winnipeg, and CBC North. Tiar is also involved with CBC's database of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and continues to share the stories of these women, their families and communities. She's currently reporting for CBC Aboriginal. @yourpaltiar.