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Connecting with Indigenous culture plays a vital role in Indigenous learners’ success

The Cultural Resource Elders Program at Bow Valley College provides the opportunity for learners to connect with Indigenous ways of knowing. Elders bring their expertise as knowledge keepers, ceremonialists, and historians to learners, and encourage them to witness, experience, and ask questions about all aspects of Indigenous experiences.

For Noella Wells, Director of the Iniikokaan Centre, Bow Valley College’s gathering place for Indigenous learners, the elders are an essential touchpoint and a cornerstone of college culture. “Our elders give learners the knowledge, the encouragement, the confidence because they’ve been there before,” she says. “This is stuff you just don’t find on Google.”

Starting with one elder in 2008, there are now seven elders from across southern Alberta and Canada involved in the program. These elders are an invaluable resource for Indigenous learners, as some learners have little or no connection to their Indigenous identity, culture, language, community, and ceremony. Through the elders, learners can find out who they are. Elders give them the knowledge, awareness, and confidence to say, “I am Cree, I am Tsuut’ina, I am Siksika, I am Piikani, I am Kainai, I am Niitsitapi.”

Participating elder Edmee Comstock says, “I look into the students’ faces, and I see the joy. I feel so good. Our people haven’t always had the kind of support they get at Bow Valley College. They get what they came for – an education, with no threat to their safety or their dignity. They are respected. They feel proud of where they come from.”

In addition to celebrating cultural, emotional, physical, and spiritual support, the elders act as influencers for learners and are proven to help with learner retention and graduation success. In the words of a recent Indigenous graduate: “I was thinking of quitting my school, but the elders inspired me to stay in school to learn more, to help other people in the future, just like they did.” 

Many of the Cultural Resource Elders are survivors of residential schools. Their experience, memories, and learnings provide an understanding of the trauma that many of Canada’s Indigenous peoples have experienced. Our elders, such as Keith Chiefmoon, play an important role in keeping the conversation alive to make the world a better place for Indigenous peoples everywhere.

“When I was in school, I was treated like an animal, often with brute force. I just wanted to escape,” says Chiefmoon. “Today, I see the students being empowered to do something with their life, to be resourceful and to, in my Kainai language, Iikakimaat, never give up.”


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