Put Aboriginal People at the Top of Education

Appointing them to post-secondary boards shows participation matters, Sophie Pierre says.


B.C. Treaty Commission Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre

B.C. Treaty Commission Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre: B.C. universities and colleges ‘should want an Aboriginal person’ on their boards.

In 1948, First Nations compulsory attendance in residential schools in Canada was done away with. Previous to that, First Nations parents living on reserves who didn’t send their children to residential school would be arrested and see their children taken away.

But when Sophie Pierre started elementary school in 1956, her family sent her to the St. Eugene Mission residential school because they were unaware they had a choice.

“I think that it was so ingrained in many of our people that that’s the way that it’s supposed to be,” said Pierre, now 63, who grew up on the ʔaq̓am (St. Mary’s) band reserve just four miles outside of Cranbrook.

While at St. Eugene from Grade 1 to 8, Pierre only saw her mother and stepfather for half an hour on one Sunday a month during the school year, despite the school’s location just across the St. Mary’s River from her reserve. She doesn’t recall her parents encouraging her education at that time; they were just so happy to be able to see one another.

But that changed when Pierre transitioned into public school at 15. Her mother, who had been a sickly child, attended residential school for only three years in the 1930s. Back then the curriculum consisted only of religion and the domestic arts. But that didn’t deter Pierre’s mother from educating herself through voracious reading, and she encouraged her only child to finish high school.

Pierre says she was one of about nine students who left St. Eugene for Mount Baker High School in Cranbrook in 1965. But by the time she got to Grade 12 there were only her and one other student from the reserve left at the school.

“It was good to get out of the residential school. It was good to go into Mount Baker [Secondary School in Cranbrook],” Pierre recalled. “But it was also really, really difficult. They were not really good times yet, between the reserve and town.”

But she also had support from Cranbrook pharmacist Don Macdonald and his wife, Mable. The pharmacist hired Pierre to work in his store when she was 16, told the young First Nations woman that he saw “potential” in her.

“They put me to work in the drugstore when I was 16, just the year after I left residential school. So I had more exposure, and I think I had just a little bit easier time than certainly a lot of my fellow students that were trying to make that transition from being in the residential school to be in a public school,” she said.

‘You can only baffle with BS for so long’

By the time she was in Grade 11, Pierre had gained the confidence to enter the Cranbrook beauty pageant — and won. She had dreams of travelling the world by becoming a stewardess with U.S.-based Trans World Airlines. But then, at 17, she got pregnant, married, and dropped out of school.

“My mother was very disappointed. She was very angry with me and it took a while to get over that,” she said.

Five years later and separated from her husband, Pierre realized she needed her Dogwood high school equivalency diploma. She enrolled in an adult education program, while working simultaneously in the band office. She graduated, but knew she needed to go further in school.

“[I] started as band secretary and worked my way up to become band manager and realized that you can only baffle people with your BS for so long,” she said.

So in 1976 she took her two young children and moved to Victoria to complete Camosun College’s two-year diploma in business administration with an accounting major. It was very rare at the time for people to leave her reserve for school, but although Pierre’s parents were disappointed their daughter and grandchildren would be so far away, they encouraged her academic pursuit.

Business administration and accounting appealed to Pierre because she was interested in independence, both for her community and herself. She felt a freedom in college that wasn’t afforded to her as a high school student or a member of a First Nations reserve that still had an Indian Agent making decisions for them.

“I loved it. I loved that atmosphere, I loved the challenge of it,” she said of attending Camosun. “The exposure that I had to a whole world of just questioning, being able to ask why, not just taking what you’re told as gospel.”

Appointed to the board

The next step in Pierre’s plan was to tackle a bachelor of commerce at the University of Victoria. But fate intervened when St. Mary’s Band called her back home to help set up the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council (now the Ktunaxa Nation Council.)

Unlike the St. Mary’s Band, which was established by the Indian Act, the tribal council was appointed by the Ktunaxa people who lived there, and isn’t accountable to the federal government. The Nation Council’s main concerns today are culture and language preservation, community and social wellness and development, resource management, and self-government.

Pierre expected to spend a year or two back home, no more, before she could return to school. Instead, it was the beginning of a 30-year career.

“I started that in September, then they had elections in October. And I don’t know, being young, I figured I could do anything and everything, so I threw my hat into the ring and got elected, and then ended up serving on council continuously from 1979 until 2008,” she said.

She spent 26 of those nearly 30 years as chief of her own St. Mary’s Band council, and 25 of them administering the Nation Council, in addition to numerous other positions on Aboriginal business, culture, and education boards. Since 2009, Pierre has served as chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission, re-appointed for her second term on April 1, 2013.

The St. Mary’s Band has much to show for her time as chief: a reclaimed old St. Eugene Indian Residential School transformed into an upscale hotel with a casino and golf course. The Aqamnik Elementary School that teaches kids from kindergarten to Grade 8 the Ktunaxa language and culture, in addition to the provincially mandated curriculum. Pierre herself wasawarded the Order of B.C. in 1994, nominated by her own people for her “deep and inspiring respect for the human being.”

St. Eugene Mission Resort

The Ktunaxa-owned St. Eugene Mission Resort near Kamloops: a quarter century as chief of a development-minded band equipped Pierre to serve as a governor at the College of the Rockies.

One of her significant accomplishments was her appointment to the College of the Rockiesboard of governors in Sept. 1990. She was the first Aboriginal person to hold a seat on the College’s board, and remained there until April 1993.

For Pierre, post-secondary institutions, particularly those in smaller communities, have the responsibility to reflect their community’s demographics and respond to its needs, making the appointment of Aboriginal people at the highest levels invaluable.

“[An institution] needs to respond to the needs of the community around it. So the college in Cranbrook needs to respond to the development that’s going on in the Elk Valley, or in any other development that’s going on in this region,” she said, adding there is no one better to represent Aboriginal peoples’ needs than an Aboriginal governor.

When she served on the board for the College of the Rockies the school was young and there were few Aboriginal students. Today, her eldest son Joe Pierre sits on the college’s board, and Aboriginal enrollment remains small, about six per cent of the student population. But that presence is still greater than that of Aboriginal people in the province generally (four per cent) and the number is rising steadily, if slowly.

For Pierre, it’s not enough simply to have an Aboriginal advisory board or council at an institution. Aboriginal cultures, histories, and presence must be woven into the culture of the institution, and the best way to do that is to have an Aboriginal board member.

“The Aboriginal people are really just a part of the college [of the Rockies] life,” she says. “It’s like there’s something about the Aboriginal people that’s constant within the life of the college.”

A goal to double Aboriginal board representation

As of Feb. 2012, fewer than half — 11 out of 26 — of the public post-secondary institutions (universities as well as colleges) in B.C. had Aboriginal members on their boards of governors. The Ministry of Advanced Education hopes to place Aboriginal governors on as many as a dozen more public, post-secondary school boards by 2016.

BC Colleges, an organization representing the 11 public colleges in the province, says that as of Sept. 2012 all of their colleges had Aboriginal representatives on their boards of governors. BC Colleges president Jim Reed says that in addition to representing Aboriginal students, Aboriginal governors are essential in furthering indigenous programming or “culturalization” in the province’s colleges.

“There’s a fairly intensive focus on cultural sensitivity, both in terms of faculty and support staff, whether it’s in programming we provide or the services that we provide,” he said.

“And that can only be gained from the perspective of Aboriginal people who lend their knowledge and experience to the institution and make [it] more aware of perhaps how they can do things differently, to make the institution more welcoming and more comfortable for Aboriginal students.”

Higher Aboriginal representation in post-secondary institutions has become a cause for National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations as well. As the first chancellor of Vancouver Island University, Atleo says his appointment to the position in 2008 was partially because of his push for institutions to put more Aboriginal people in high-ranking positions.

“I’ve had the chance to sit down with leaders in post-secondary institutions to encourage them to act in reforming their institutions now, to not have their First Nations be an afterthought or an external appendage or a way to maybe get some First Nations money, but rather to bring about structural recognition,” he said, noting that Nipissing University recently made history byappointing the country’s first Aboriginal university president, Mike DeGagné, last year.

“And I’m seeing more appointments happen of First Nations academic leadership now in the offices of the executive suites in universities. … But this doesn’t mean that this has come very quickly in academic leadership in this country. It’s come rather slowly, not quick enough for any of our satisfaction.”

‘They should want an Aboriginal person': Hoggan

Debra Hoggan’s experience on the board of governors at Emily Carr University of Art and Design is symbolic of the slow pace of change. Although not the first Aboriginal governor the University has had, she says it’s been a struggle to educate some of her fellow board members on the importance of Aboriginal representation on the board and in the student body.

“I think that many of them look at the Aboriginal community as being so needy, and they don’t even think that they can contribute a lot to the education system,” she said.

Emily Carr’s Aboriginal population is small: only 90 out of 4,000 students in 2012 — less than its goal of 125 students. But Hoggan has managed to improve access to the University for Aboriginal students by setting up a five-year scholarship in her name, and working on fundraising initiatives with the University’s Aboriginal Program Office.

Now serving the last year of a five-year term on the board, Hoggan says she often feels pigeonholed by her fellow governors: “I feel that I have more to offer than just the Aboriginal history and perspective, because of my passion in fundraising, but I felt that other board members thought that I only knew about being a native person. I found that challenging.”

However she says Aboriginal presence on post-secondary boards of governors is essential to showing Aboriginal youth that pursuing their education is not only possible, but worth it.

“We’ve got to get that message out to children as well as parents and then for counselors, to even know that there is Aboriginal representation on boards I think opens the door for students who might be considering going forward, who have that desire to move on.”

Hoggan, who was appointed to the board by the government’s Board Resourcing and Development Office, questions why there was just one Aboriginal member of the 15-person board. Post-secondary institutions can recommend potential board members to consider, and Hoggan says to the best of her knowledge Emily Carr hasn’t recommended an Aboriginal person before.

This spring was Hoggan’s last on the board, and she wonders who will replace her.

“Now I’m starting to talk to the president about ‘We should be looking for another Aboriginal person. We’ve got to get someone else appointed, we’ve got to make sure you have at least another Aboriginal person to fill this one position.’ I don’t know what their thinking is,” she said.

“But it shouldn’t have to be that way, where they feel they have to have an Aboriginal person. They should want an Aboriginal person.”

Weaving in the Aboriginal thread

The Tyee Solutions Society asked the Emily Carr University of Art and Design if they would recommend an Aboriginal person to replace Hoggan.

Barry Patterson, the university’s executive director of communications, said in an email that they strive for diversity of appointments, but also proper qualifications.

“This has been reflected in past appointments. Diverse representation will be important as we proceed into a nomination process for those individuals finishing their terms at the end of this year and future selection. Emily Carr is dedicated to providing access and support for Aboriginal students through our Aboriginal Program Office and the Aboriginal Gathering Place,” he wrote.

BC Colleges’ Reed says there are some barriers to appointing more Aboriginal people to boards, not the least of which is the lack of awareness that the positions are available.

“Other barriers have included the availability of people with some experience and the right skill sets to be comfortable that they’re sitting on a board such as a college. The availability of people to attend regularly scheduled meetings, and that’s not just limited to Aboriginal representation, that can be a barrier for other people being on our board as well,” he said. Hoggan’s experience of not feeling fully accepted by the rest of the board, he added, is also a common barrier.

But moving beyond those barriers is important for the future academic success of Aboriginal youth. In Pierre’s deeply experienced view, it’s time for post-secondary institutions to move beyond the token recognition of Aboriginal people, culture, and histories in one-day celebrations like Aboriginal Day, and instead to put Aboriginal people in positions of power.

Using an analogy from her days as chairperson of Aboriginal Tourism in British Columbia, Pierre says Aboriginal presence in post-secondary education “can no longer just be a decal that you place on the fabric of the industry. It is a very important thread in that whole fabric.”

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.