by Marlene Erickson
This booklet is a visual storytelling of the many roles Elders play in post-secondary environments across the province. With gentle hands and voices, Elders not only provide support to Indigenous students, they also demonstrate a holistic model of mental health and are helping to transform B.C. post-secondary institutions into safer, more inclusive spaces.
Why This Booklet?
While support for student mental health and wellness may evoke images of increasing mental health resources, hiring more counsellors and wellness coaches, and improving access to telephone and online crisis support, Elders also play a foundational role. By sharing their knowledge, culture, and traditions; providing support and advice to students; and building strong community of support, Elders have become essential to campuses.
With increased emphasis on student mental health and wellness in recent years, BCcampus wanted to examine the role of Elders and how culture as a foundation supports mental health and wellness. BCcampus gathered together a group of Indigenous Elders in Residence, a post-secondary leader, and a student to discuss how Elders help students thrive in the post-secondary environment. What emerged was a rich dialogue about how the support that Elders provide expands far beyond Indigenous student retention and was much more than a counselling model. The dialogue shone a light on the holistic perspective that draws in the entire post-secondary community to support all students’ well-being.
An Evolving Role that Benefits Both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Students and Faculty
Elder-in-Residence positions were originally created at many post-secondary institutions to support Indigenous student success and increase retention. Elders worked to connect students to culture, teach values that empowered them to succeed, and help them better understand themselves as Indigenous students in a mainstream system. They supported students who experiencing intergenerational trauma, and loss of identity and who often came from broken homes. Working from the Indigenous holistic model of care, the Elders’ work involved engaging the post-secondary community to understand where the students were coming from.
As Elders sat with faculty to brainstorm ways to retain students in courses, faculty increasingly realized they also wanted the Elders to teach in their classes about local Indigenous culture and their history. Many faculty wanted to learn about a different worldview and a different way of teaching. At a time when all campuses were becoming more diverse, the Elders’ teachings became a catalyst for shifting people’s thinking from expecting everyone to learn and do things one way to becoming open to learning other ways and honouring diversity. Faculty learned new ways of teaching when Elders asked the students to engage in land-based learning. They found that all students benefited from this way of teaching through doing and collaborative learning and mentoring. Indigenous students began to feel safer in these classes because they saw their knowledge and culture being included and honoured.
Non-Indigenous students have also benefited from the Elders’ teachings. Elders are an important way for non-Indigenous students to build relationships with the Indigenous people and communities they will be working with or serving in their careers. All students became more culturally competent as a result of the Elders’ teachings. Many students found that Indigenous teachings such as respect for Mother Earth and regard for community and a balanced lifestyle transformed their thinking and changed their relationship with the land and their community.
We have learned how the post-secondary environment has been transformed by the Elders’ presence, knowledge, and wisdom. While Elders were first brought onto campuses to increase Indigenous student retention, their influence quickly extended to enrich the entire post-secondary community. Elders have taught us to always be respectful and honour diversity. Elders have brought different worldviews and a relationship to Mother Earth and community; they have introduced new ways of teaching that are appreciated by all students. Most importantly, for Indigenous students, the Elders have created safer, more inclusive spaces for them to learn in. The Elders’ cultural teachings have grounded them and taught them ways to navigate and thrive in the post-secondary environment. Elders are teaching us that mental health and wellness can be addressed in a holistic way that engages the expertise and resources of the entire post-secondary community. Elders have taught us that a cultural foundation is a pillar of students’ emotional well-being and all cultures have to be acknowledged and honoured if students are to succeed.
For all these reasons, Elder-in-Residence positions should not be considered a “nice to have” when there is funding available, but rather we strongly recommend they become a part of every post-secondary institution and that their positions be funded and resourced accordingly.
How to Use This Booklet
The illustrations in this booklet show the many ways that Elders support student mental health and wellness through their holistic perspectives of wellness.
After each illustration, there are reflection questions to help you think about the role of Elders on your campus. We invite you as a member of your post-secondary institution to think about ways that Elders’ presence, knowledge, and wisdom enrich your learning environment and how we can all create safer spaces for Indigenous students and together build inclusive learning environments that benefit the mental health and wellness of all students.
Indigenous Elder: someone who has earned the authority and respect of their community because of their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom acquired through life experiences. A deep spirituality influences every aspect of an Elder’s life and teachings, and they strive to show by example, and by living their lives according to deeply ingrained principles, values, and teaching. An Elder is deeply committed to sharing their knowledge, providing guidance, teaching others to respect the natural world and to learn to listen and feel the rhythms of nature. (Adapted from Indigenous Elder Definition by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.)
Elder in Residence: an Indigenous Elder working within the post-secondary environment.