Convocation 2019 – Denise Verreault
The Master of Arts — Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program was the perfect fit for Denise Verreault, who convocated this June. She appreciated the integrated approach to education, the heightened awareness of social justice and community development, and the ability to study what interested her most.
Exploring her history and finding her truth was the main goal for Verreault’s MAIS degree; it gave her the ability to focus on the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools and examine the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action. Verreault noticed there were frequent reconciliation and learning opportunities presented to non-Indigenous people who work or learn with Indigenous people. The challenge she observed though was that many non-Indigenous people continue to struggle with how to approach talking about their concerns or curiosities about Indigenous people’s lives, cultures, and traditions.
It was Dr. Paul Kellogg that was one of the first professors that committed to providing education and information about Indigenous people and the impacts of the Indian residential schools. This was the first course for Verreault that promoted reconciliation so clearly. For Verreault, she thanks him for his work and helping to expand students’ knowledge. Education truly has the power to transform and promote social change.
As an intergenerational residential school survivor, creating social change and working towards reconciliation is a passion of Verreault’s. Her late mother was a student in one of the many Indian Residential Schools, and Denise experienced first-hand how devastating they were for Indigenous peoples. This included giving up their Treaty rights through enfranchisement to access post-secondary education like her mother was forced to do. Not to mention the destructive effects of Indian Residential Schools on language, culture, spirituality, and families.
Verreault unpacked this difficult legacy as part of her capstone through an autoethnographic approach. She used her life experience as an intergenerational survivor of Indian Residential Schools and her mother as a non-survivor. From this perspective, she can dismantle the myth that Indigenous people should be seen as distinct and separate from the broader Canadian society, but that Indigenous education can be a huge opportunity for collaboration and relationship-building.
“It is my hope that if people know that they are supported when addressing Indigenous racism and stereotypes, they can create the necessary conversations that initiative the paradigm shift that is so vital in achieving reconciliation.”– Denise Verreault
Approaching the TRC’s Calls to Action as a perspective opportunity to facilitate positive change for today and in the future, when combined with Transformative Indigenous Knowledge, can enhance community development and foment social change.
Transformative Indigenous Knowledge is the term she created to describe an experiential education practice that entails “the use of Indigenous knowledge, cultural awareness, practices, and protocols during non-Indigenous work or recreational activities, which includes using the Indigenous protocols and practices that exist in the geographic location of the activities.”
It is a community development and social change tool that when combined with the TRC’s Calls to Action that can create space for a rich and diverse Indigenous culture, where non-Indigenous people can embrace and honour the local Indigenous cultural practices or protocol, just as Indigenous peoples have done since colonialization. With the help of her uncle, Transformative Indigenous Knowledge was translated into Nakota Sioux, and means ‘Indigenous knowledge is awakening.’
“If we truly wish to build unity and create a sustainable Transformative Indigenous Knowledge system for all Canadians, then we must remove hesitation and predisposition by building experience and relationships.”– Denise Verreault
After finishing the program, she feels that she is better equipped to deal with community development and social change within communities to better support empowering conversations between groups that have opposing perspectives and social views. By learning how to embrace Transformative Indigenous Knowledge, cross-cultural sharing is facilitated, and there is an opportunity for current and future Indigenous and non-Indigenous dialogue and participation. It is through experiential education relationship that reconciliation can be co-built on empathy and acceptance.
“While there are so many generations and thousands of people that have been impacted negatively, there’s also a degree of resilience and restructure that’s happening.”– Denise Verreault
“I’m on a path of reconciliation.”
As you can see, education is incredibly important to Verreault, not only for herself but her children as well. Denise believes if she were given a choice, her mother would have chosen to fight to keep her Treaty rights, continue her traditional teachings, and receive an education at the same time.
“For her [Denise’s mother] to see me keep my Treaty rights, to keep my family bonds, to keep my culture, and to get an education, that would be a huge sense of relief,” said Verreault when speaking about her late mother.
Today, three of Verreault’s children have post-secondary degrees, with one currently working on a master’s program in Europe and another returning to school in the fall. Verreault herself, who finished the MAIS program later in life, noted that “no matter how old you are—keep learning.” She feels that the value of education instilled in her is something she’ll carry on forever.
Life also got in the way while pursuing her degree, and notes that the flexibility was vital during her four moves across Canada, from Alberta to Ontario, back to Alberta and then to B.C., getting married, and other challenging situations. She felt professors and administrators genuinely cared about her.
“I was more than just a student ID number; I was an Indigenous woman with real feelings and real challenges.”
The sky’s the limit for Verreault’s future in learning and her commitment to the power of transformation available through experiential education. She is currently completing the Towards Cooperative Commonwealth: Transition in a Perilous Century certificate course through Synergia Institute with support from Athabasca University and has thought about pursuing a PhD program at some point. She wants learners to know that you can take a program slowly, you can change the focus area or your program, and most importantly, “whatever investment you make is worth it,” says Verreault. A mentor once told her that “either you can have regrets now, or you can have regrets for the rest of your life.”