Michelle Fournie celebrated as part of Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 under 40

A Q&A with the manager of the Iniikokaan Centre at Bow Valley College.

Avenue Magazine has announced its Top 40 under 40 Class of 2021, and we’re proud that Bow Valley College’s Michelle Fournie is featured on this list of inspiring community members.

We caught up with Michelle to celebrate this accomplishment and talk about some of the highlights of being Manager of the Iniikokaan Centre.

Can you tell us more about yourself?

My traditional Blackfoot name is Tahstikiikoonima Iikkiitstakahkii (Centre Pole Offering Woman), which was given to me in ceremony by Elder Keith Chiefmoon from Kainai. My married name is “Fournie” (pronounced four-knee), and my maiden name is Dennis. I am Metis (Cree-French), English, and Irish.

My late grandfather on my father’s side, Maurice William Dennis, was Metis on both sides from Fort Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan and Red River Settlement. My grandparents met when he was in the war in England and came to Alberta, electing not to live on the homestead but moved to Calgary in a two-bedroom house where they raised eight children. I am told I am very similar to my late grandmother, Hilda Atkinson, who I think of most when I’m baking.

I am also a second-generation immigrant with my grandparents coming from Ireland on a boat to Canada 66 years ago. They were dancers and wanted to make their mark in Canada. My Irish grandmother, Margaret Montgomery, who my daughter is named after, was my best friend growing up. We had tea every Tuesday and watched old movies. Sometimes, she would just sit beside me, smoking her cigarettes, reading the bible, and giving me space to just be.

I grew up in Etobicoke, Toronto, until Grade 3 and moved west with my parents, making our home in Treaty 7 and Metis Nation Region 3. I have two children, ages 2 and 6, and raised my niece, who just turned 19. I am married to a passionate Captain/firefighter who serves the City of Chestermere. We met in high school and have found our way to each other at each stage of growth. We also have a Bernese Mountain Dog – Saint Bernard mix named “Harvey Mr. Stinky.” And yes, dog hair is a food group in my house.

I love thrift shopping, cake, beadwork, and sewing. I wanted to be a lawyer and a social worker when I was little. Education was my way to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma in my family, and I am very passionate about addressing barriers head-on so that the student experience is a positively holistic one. I studied Indigenous Social Work at the University of Victoria, and Public Relations at Mount Royal University. I travel quite a bit for my Master of Education at the University of Calgary, learning Blackfoot ways of wellness, language, politics, and art on the land and from Elders. I like to serve as a Metis Education Facilitator for the Rupertsland Centre of Excellence.

How does it feel to be recognized as one of Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 under 40 for 2021?

The first person I told about Top 40 was my mom, who said, “I don’t know what that is. What are you cooking for dinner tonight?” It was quite humbling.

This publication time stamps just a few people in and around Mohkinstsis contributing to the community of Calgary in their own way. I am so impressed by these individuals, their sacrifices, and lived experiences. I am honoured to be in the same circle of this year’s highlights.

I am most excited about featuring the amazing work at the Iniikokaan Centre and at the College to meet the needs of Indigenous students.

What drew you to working at Bow Valley College? What have some of the highlights been for you so far in your work for the College?

What initially impressed me was the College’s approach to access and responsiveness to Indigenous students. I knew the institution was rooted in a long history of building and maintaining trusted relationships with Indigenous communities. I was taken by one of the “how”s in the College’s Mission Statement: to challenge our own thinking.

My dream was to work in a place where hard conversations about Indigenization were welcomed, where Indigenous employees were sought after and valued, and where I could learn and respectfully express alternative views in a safe place. I wanted to report to informed leadership who encouraged my personal passion for Western education and emphasized the priority for wellness and family and community commitments, while leading the operations of such an integral centre to the culture of the College. I needed to attempt to understand what it means to infuse student support services with Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing, and acknowledge that pursuit of learning would take a long time.

But first and foremost, I wanted to be in a role that could keep a pulse on the Indigenous student experiences and inform strategy to address gaps, barriers, and inequality. The legacy of the Iniikokaan Centre is built from prayer, protocol, and engagement. I could feel it when I walked in, and it is what is described by guests and students still. It is a home away from home. I am honoured to serve in this space.

What are some of your favourite events or programs that the Iniikokaan Centre has worked on since you took on the role of Manager?

I am so proud of the staff at the centre as we welcome new team members and continue toward the commitment to creating safe and respectful places to be as we are as Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous student supports planned and delivered online can be different with in-person programming. Now that we offer a hybrid of supports at the Iniikokaan Centre, we are learning more and more in what resonates and impacts students. And the students tell us they want to have fun! We’ll be introducing more programming centred around community building and leadership.

Aside from witnessing student speeches during our Indigenous Graduation Celebrations, my favourite event is the Winter Camp gathering, where we celebrate the Fall semester. It helps us ease into the winter season through connection and laughter. I am looking forward to this years’ event too.

Why do you prioritize volunteerism?

I believe that volunteering is a way to give back to communities who have raised me. Before I connected with my own Indigenous community as an urban-based youth, I created and found my own sense of community. The reason my heart is pulled in so many directions is because many, many circles have invited me in and still influence my perspective today.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the College community?

I’m so excited for the collaborative work that we are all doing in support of Indigenous students. I cannot wait to see how our collective creativity, innovation, and experiences will make all learning count. I’d especially like to thank Lynn Connell and Catherine Koch for your inspirational leadership, continued support, and vision for Indigenous student services.

Read the Avenue article here.

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