Vicky Boldo (Centre-Right) with other staff from the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre (ASRC) Mikayla Cartwright (Left), Bo Kim (Centre-left) and Orenda Boucher-Curotte (Right)
For Vicky Boldo, Concordia’s Indigenous Elder in residence, it is not a question: cultural safety makes for a better learning environment for everyone involved. By creating an atmosphere where students feel safe to be themselves in their culture and identity without being made to feel “less than”, the opportunities to learn, share, and grow are boundless.
“If we go for a walk on the Mountain and we come up to an animal and it sees us and what happens? It goes into panic or anxiety, it either freezes on the spot or runs away,” explains Vicky. “And that’s what I see with the students sometimes when they feel it’s not safe. These situations do not assist in the flow of their learning. They end up in situations where mental health all of a sudden overrides their academic achievements and success and that is concerning.”
Vicky explains that cultural safety simply means that no one is put into a situation where they are being made to feel less than other people, because of their culture or identity. There is a difference between students feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. While learning can be uncomfortable and can challenge previously held beliefs, students need to feel culturally safe to be themselves without being dismissed in order to learn and grow. Indigenous students need special consideration as their educational experiences are not like that of anyone else, and it is something that other students, staff and faculty need to be mindful of.
Identifying as Cree-Metis, Vicky is an adoptee from the 1960s, and grew up in British Colombia. She has spent over thirty years living in Quebec and has been a long time leader in Montreal’s Urban Indigenous Community. She is the co-chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy NETWORK, a community liaison with the Montreal Police Department, cultural facilitator, and consults with many institutions in anti-racism and anti-discrimination. She has been well known to Indigenous students at Concordia for some time through her work. She was humbled last year when Indigenous students recommended that she become their Elder in Residence at Concordia.
Much of her work involves providing support, guidance, and a listening ear for Indigenous students. She says her main goal is to empower the youth to be proud of who they are while they continue on their educational journey. Along with this Vicky guest lectures in many different classes in the university, and provides cultural facilitation, sensitization, and education to Concordia staff and faculty.
“Often an Indigenous student will come into my office, which I like to consider a safe space. Very often they’ll be working through things, whether it’s keeping up with their school work, or feeling a bit lost, or sometimes they need help processing something they have just learned" Vicky explains in a warm voice. Many times she says she has had to help students who are upset because they are, for the very first time, learning about how their lives, families and communities fit into the broader context of colonialization in Canada. Sometimes a course lecture or article includes stories that are directly connected to lives of Indigenous students. It can be a real shock to the system when stories that hit close to home are brought up casually in class.
Vicky stresses the needs for faculty and staff at Concordia to be aware of the needs of Indigenous students. They have a different history and different relationship than anyone else within Canadian educational institutions. She believes that not only is there room for non-Indigenous staff and faculty at Concordia to learn these histories, but that there is room to hire more Indigenous People at Concordia. By hiring more Indigenous staff and faculty, Vicky believes, it will help Indigenous learners see themselves reflected back in Concordia.
“By having more Indigenous faculty that can teach some of these difficult subjects, or non-Indigenous faculty that are at least sensitive to these issues, they can present them in a way that is less detached and more aware of students’ needs,” she explains.
Often Vicky has to help Indigenous students deal with “micro-aggressions,” or small off-handed comments made by faculty, staff or other students that may not seem like a big deal to those making the comment, but can completely derail someone’s learning experience. Sometimes it comes from a well-meaning professor who doesn’t really consider the impact that course materials may have on Indigenous students.
“I’ve heard the anger in students’ voices, saying ‘wow, I’ve spent all this time in formal education and this is my first time hearing these stories’ when talking about colonial history, and so I find that is really concerning and kind of irresponsible of putting individuals through that emotional duress. We need to make sure that our educators know about these things.”
“Cultural safety creates an environment where people feel free to ask questions, and challenge assumptions. It’s where the real learning happens,” says Vicky. “Even after I go and guest lecture in a classroom there are probably even more non-Indigenous students who approach me afterwards who have been affected once they hear about the colonial history of Canada.”
It is not just Indigenous students who stand to benefit from a culturally safe Concordia, says Vicky, but the entire institution and the public at large who attend the many talks and lectures at the university. By being aware of cultural safety - not just for Indigenous students, but all students - we create an environment where everyone is free to participate.
“If government is moving in this direction of saying nation to nation and reconciliation then universities have a huge role in collaborating in solidarity to create that change. Concordia is a public institution right in the heart of downtown Montreal. When Concordia makes these new relationships a priority others will take notice and listen.”
Despite the challenges ahead Vicky is very hopeful for the future. She sees generations of young Indigenous People who are not afraid to stand up for themselves, to speak and be seen. They are educating themselves, and bringing with them their cultures and world views to enrich mainstream Canadian society. She says that she is proud to be part of Concordia, proud to be a little part in this change in the Indigenous world, proud to help empower Indigenous students, who are already changing their communities and the world we live in.
By Ossie Michelin
Photo by UCS