‘You’re Going to Do Your PhD’

For Karen Hall, disconnected daughter of a Dene healer, an Aboriginal academic mentor was life-changing.


Aboriginal academic mentor

Karen Hall, left, with her mentor, Charlotte Reading. ‘As an Aboriginal person, going into university is a daunting experience,’ Reading says. Photo by Pete Rockwell and graphic by April Alayon.

Growing up, Karen Hall had identity issues. The daughter of a Dene mother and a non-indigenous father, Hall spent most of her childhood after her parents separated with her father in Yellowknife. Her mother, a residential school survivor, wasn’t able to raise Hall full time, but would take her during the summer and holidays.

Though Hall spent a lot of time on the land when visiting her mother, a traditional healer, she grew up in what she called a “very white” environment, attending public schools with very few Aboriginal students. She knew she looked different from her classmates and sometimes people looked down on her, judging her intelligence based on her Dene heritage.

But for the most part she fit in, because her Anglo upbringing provided her with the tools to navigate this society, even though it disconnected her from her indigenous roots and culture.

“I felt like I was the only native person within my peer group, and I felt very un-native. I felt like I was almost ashamed to be a native person,” she said. It wasn’t her father’s fault, she added. She describes her upbringing with him as “amazing” and her parents as both very supportive and loving.

“I have been affected by Canada’s colonial history. Because my mom was forced to attend residential school I was disconnected from my culture, which means I wasn’t cultured as a Dene person to my full potential.”

When she was 17, Hall’s father, stepmother, and siblings relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Hall stayed behind to finish her diploma, moving in with her mother.

Hall described herself at the time as “[not] an A average student, I was kind of in the middle.” She didn’t have the grades to attend university. Instead she completed a one-year office assistant program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary before returning to Yellowknife.

Back home she took a job as a medical receptionist, but the doctors she worked for encouraged her to aim higher.

“They thought I could do so much better than working there. So at the same time as working at the clinic, I began to upgrade a number of high school classes knowing that eventually I would be applying to university,” she said.

After taking some time to travel, Hall relocated to Halifax to live with her father and step-mom. She was very close to her father and since he had relocated to Halifax, Hall only got to see him once or twice a year. She wanted to attend university, but being close to family was more important than the school she chose. So she applied to just one school, Dalhousie University, and was accepted. She was 24 when she started school again.

‘Life-changing’

Like most post-secondary students, Hall didn’t have a career in mind when she started her first year. Although she was interested in health, specifically traditional healing like the kind her mother practices, she didn’t have a clear idea where her Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion program might lead.

“I think my experience as an indigenous person going into university is pretty common. It’s a daunting experience. Maybe it was somewhat easier for me because of the way I was raised in a sort of non-indigenous environment, but at the same time I’m very aware of my skin colour, and I’m very aware of the stereotypes about indigenous people,” she said.

In her second year, Hall became pregnant. Now, not only did the 25-year-old have no career plan after graduation, she wasn’t even sure about finishing her degree.

Then she took professor Charlotte Reading’s 400-level class on healthy sexuality, and everything changed. “She was a Metis professor, I knew her as the only indigenous professor at Dal at the time,” Hall said of Reading.

“There were probably 500 students in the class, but for some reason she just noticed me and we started talking one day after class.”

Reading was a professor in Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance at the time. Now teaching at the University of Victoria (UVic), she told The Tyee Solutions Society she first noticed Hall when students were doing group work in class one day. Although Hall was visibly pregnant, her group mates’ had taken all the available chairs, leaving her standing.

“I of course went over and said, ‘Now, you’re not really going to let this pregnant woman stand while the rest of you sit, are you?'” Reading recalled (several male students quickly jumped up to offer their chairs).

Reading took note of Hall’s First Nation’s heritage and her shy demeanour: “I think I just said, ‘If there’s anything I can do, if you need any help, want to [ask] any questions,’ because I found out she was in our program. I think then she came to see me and we started our relationship that way.”

Reading had experience of what Hall was going through, having completed her own undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees as a single mother. Her journey to Dalhousie had been much more arduous however.

One of five children born to a Mi’kmaq mother and an Acadian father, Reading left home as a teenager when her father’s alcoholism and a mother “damaged” by an abusive childhood made life at home too chaotic to handle. After working a number of “shitty jobs,” as she recalls them, Reading applied for and was accepted into a Nova Scotia Board of Trade program that combined high school equivalency with office skills.

After obtaining her GED through the program at 21, she got a job with Canada Mortgage and Housing, got married, and had a child. She left her job when her daughter was born, but she and her husband separated soon after. It was then, at 30, that Reading realized her limited education wasn’t going to support both her and her young daughter.

“Someone said, ‘You can go to school and social services will pay your living expenses.’ So they gave me about $900 a month and I went to university, scared to death, and did it,” said Reading, who attended Dalhousie for undergraduate, masters, and PhD programs, sustained by scholarships and hard work.

Reading immediately felt a connection with the younger woman. Hall vividly recalled her encouraging words at their first meeting: “‘You’re going to finish your undergrad, and then you’re going to do your masters, and then you’re going to do your PhD.’ That’s exactly what she told me,” Hall said.

“I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I’m going to finish my undergrad,’ and that’s exactly how I felt.”

Reading exposed Hall to the Atlantic Aboriginal Health Research Project, an initiative of the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health, part of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, housed at Dalhousie. Hall was introduced to researchers exploring the very topic that interested her: the intersection of health practices and Aboriginal culture.

The experience opened doors for Hall to a position as assistant researcher in a study on diabetes and Aboriginal people, attendance at a summer institute on intervention research for Aboriginal people, and other graduate-level events.

For a student who’d had no concept of what a masters degree entailed, let alone what benefits it would offer, it was a life-changing experience.

“Even as a university undergraduate student, I wasn’t sure what it took to get to the next level,” she told The Tyee Solutions Society. “Having Charlotte as that mentor also helped me with the process.”

It also opened Hall’s eyes to the culture and experiences she could draw on because of her mother’s background as a Dene healer.

“It wasn’t until university that I started to really yearn for my culture and who I was, and what it meant to be an indigenous person and how I had so much culture and knowledge at my fingertips because of my mom,” she said.

“It felt so healing to make that connection.”

Reaching out, with a way to go

Dalhousie doesn’t count its Aboriginal faculty and staff, but self-identified Aboriginal people constitute less than one per cent of its students. Hall was often the only Aboriginal student in her classes, and didn’t even discover the campus’ Aboriginal students’ support services until her third year.

“I felt like I was always having to explain myself, always looked at as the expert, and I am by no way an expert in indigenous [experience],” she said. For Hall, the educational experience of every Canadian student, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, would be enriched with broader knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture, starting as young as the elementary school curriculum.

“That lack of understanding that indigenous cultures are very diverse and there are multiple ways of knowing — I think there’s just so much to broadening everyone’s knowledge about indigenous cultures. It’s wrapped up in so much.”

Hall’s experience as a Dal student was little changed from her mentor’s almost 20 years earlier. Reading recalls being one of two Aboriginal students she knew of in her courses; she knew of no Aboriginal faculty. Even during her decade as a sessional instructor and then a full-time professor at the university from 1999-2009, little improved.

“I think there were three of us, maybe four, indigenous faculty,” she recalled. The Native Education Counselling Unit “was in this crappy little part of a building, it wasn’t even a whole building. It was almost the basement end of a building. The support for it was really abysmal.”

Reading says there are indigenous and non-indigenous professors and students trying to change the culture at Dalhousie now. But she believes there is a lack of will in — and out of — the university to change.

“Let’s face it: Nova Scotia’s a pretty racist province,” she said, lowering her voice. “My daughter’s [father] is a black man from Nova Scotia and, oh my god, the racism is still bad.”

In an email, Dal’s vice-president academic told The Tyee Solutions Society that the university is trying hard to create a better experience for Aboriginal students.

“The best word for the overall level of awareness and appreciation of Aboriginal culture and history on campus,” wrote Keith F. Taylor, “is ‘improving’.”

Taylor came to Dal from the University of Saskatchewan, a campus that as long ago as a decade had over five times the number of self-identified Aboriginal students that Dal does today.

The Halifax campus now provides Aboriginal student services from the Native Education Counselling Unit, relocated above ground in a campus house it shares with the Women’s Centre. The unit is a division of The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, and open to Aboriginal students at all Metro Halifax post-secondaries. It provides services such as a writing coach, a ‘Studying for Success’ coach, and peer advisors in the summer semester. It also offers incoming indigenous students a campus tour.

An Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative’s (AHSI) program introduces identified Aboriginal high school students to health science courses at Dal, in hopes of encouraging them to pursue health-related studies.

But Taylor adds that AHSI offers support to Aboriginal students in any faculty, because “we view all successes as broadening the base of potential health care practitioners.”

There’s also a Transition Year program for Aboriginal and black students who haven’t completed high school or have spent a long time out of school and need to upgrade their skills and learn to navigate campus life. Finally, a Native Students’ Association open to all Aboriginal students holds events like potlucks, career counselling, and the university’s annual fall Mawio’mi or pow wow.

“There are other ways in which the veil of ignorance of Aboriginal issues is lifting across campus. The various faculties are discussing enhancements to our course offerings,” said Taylor.

“The addition of the Truro campus [in 2012] gives us a welcoming environment fairly close to three Mi’kmaq communities. The annual Mawi’omi is certainly playing a role, and our orientation activities each year now have an Aboriginal flavoured event.”

Missing the voice of experience

Still absent however is an official mentorship program for Aboriginal students. A few other Canadian campuses offer peer mentorship between Aboriginal students. Ottawa’s Carleton, the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus, York University, and the University of Victoria are among them.

But while peer mentorships may offer an easier connection with someone close to your own age, they lack the years of expert knowledge and university experience a professor can offer.

For Aboriginal students, a mentor’s background can also make a big difference.

As Hall’s experience shows, not all Aboriginal students have troubled backgrounds, Reading said. Even so, without a drastic change in the education Canadians receive on the experience of Aboriginal people in Canada, most non-Aboriginal professors would be ill equipped to fully understand the lives of their Aboriginal students.

“There really is a difference in an Aboriginal faculty member’s capacity to understand some of the circumstances, even just racism and the specific kind of racism that indigenous people experience, which is different than other people of colour,” said Reading.

She sees benefits in both peer and professor mentorships. “It’s really not just about the academics. It’s about being willing to actually have a relationship with them,” she said. “So I think ideally both [should be offered], and they both have their merits.”

For Hall there’s no question: she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for Reading.

“She’s almost like a mother-figure to me, and if I didn’t have that, there’s definitely no way I would be where I am today, because she was so crucial in making those connections for me,” she said.

Today, Hall is at UVic working on her masters in Studies in Policy and Practice in Health and Social Services. She’s researching the interaction between non-Aboriginal health service providers and Aboriginal people, and is already applying to complete her PhD at UVic, which will involve taking her masters research and applying it to the work of current healthcare providers in the north.

“It may… be training service providers around culture of the Dene people or the Aboriginal people up north, talking about colonialism and how that affects health,” she said, adding the deputy minister of health and social services in the Government of the Northwest Territories has already endorsed the idea.

Hall followed her mentor to UVic. Reading moved to the University in 2009 and is glad Hall could join her there.

“She is a spectacular person, so much to offer, so much potential,” said Reading.

“To see the change in her over the last six or seven years is amazing. I feel blessed to have known her and to have been a small part of her life. I think for the mentors themselves, it’s such a wonderful experience, it’s so fulfilling in terms of contributing a lot to your life.”

Hall hopes to start her PhD in the next year. Now 32, she will spend another five years finishing her doctorate. In all, she’ll have spent over a decade in post-secondary education.

Given the chance to help another Aboriginal student reach their academic goals, she says, she would now “absolutely” take on the mentor role herself.

“Because it played such a critical role in my success.”

“Just having someone who’s there to answer any questions that I have related to school work, related to my life, has been so instrumental in my success as a university student.”

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives, with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. Tides Canada Initiatives and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.