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Oct. 23, 2017

Learning is a life-long journey. Wilfrid Laurier University students June Manitowabi and Vivian Timmins will attest to that. They took on graduate degrees as grandmothers, along with seven other older Indigenous women in Laurier’s Master of Social Work: Indigenous Field of Study program. On Oct. 27, they’ll cross the convocation stage to cheers from their biggest fans: their grandkids.

The long-awaited 'me time'

“Many Indigenous women are tasked with parenting, community work and professional work and, at times, it isn't until they are older that they see their educational aspirations as 'their time,’” says Kathy Absolon-King, associate professor in Laurier’s Faculty of Social Work and Indigenous Field of Study (IFS) program.

Absolon-King’s observation fits Manitowabi perfectly, who at 54, decided to pursue her master’s degree.

“I just felt like it was my time,” says Manitowabi, a social services coordinator at Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong First Nation.

Her post-secondary education journey started more than 20 years ago, but demands of raising three children alone and caring for her ailing mother forced Manitowabi to put her education on hold more than once. After two decades of sporadic studies, she completed her undergraduate degree in social work in 2014 and attended an information session about Laurier’s IFS master’s program.

The program, launched in 2006, is rooted in Indigenous wholistic healing approaches, combining land-based cultural camps with classroom courses and a practicum. With her children grown and her mother gone to the spirit world, Manitowabi finally put herself first.

At 55, classmate Vivian Timmins made the same decision.

Her ‘a-ha’ moment came as she held her newborn granddaughter for the first time.

“I asked myself how I wanted my granddaughter to see me as she grows up,” says Timmins, who overcame addiction and depression as a result of the childhood trauma she experienced in Canada’s residential school system. “Did I want her to see me as someone who looked to the future with hope or someone who just sustained the present?”

Timmins’ undergraduate studies were intermittent but she says those few moments of reflection with her granddaughter generated feelings of positivity and hope that she needed to move forward with her life and focus on furthering her education. Like Manitowabi, Timmins attended an IFS information session and was drawn to the program’s use of traditional circle processes, Indigenous elders and ceremonies integrated with mainstream academia.

Older students, fresh insights

Pursuing a graduate degree can be challenging at any age, but Timmins has nothing but respect for the program’s inclusion – and value – of older adult students.

“I was relearning and reclaiming my traditional knowledge as a grandmother,” says Timmins, who was taught a Judeo-Christian curriculum at St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario. “The MSW program helped me to gain a deeper understanding of our peoples’ history, worldviews and traditional practices well into my adulthood, which fulfilled aspects of my life that were missing.”

Grandmothers, in Indigenous culture, are highly respected. They are healers, protectors and teachers. The intergenerational learning that occurs within the program may be one of its most attractive features.

“The mature students, like the grandmothers, are seasoned practitioners who have been practicing social work in their communities for many years,” says Absolon-King. “Mature students in our program bring their lived and professional experiences to our learning circles.”

Manitowabi, for example, is trained as a cedar bath practitioner. Taught by her sister and their aunt, Manitowabi uses cedar baths to treat victims of trauma and those not responding to traditional Indigenous therapies. In a cedar bath, the patient is sent to gather armfuls of cedar branches that will be boiled in a copper pot. There are various ways that the practitioner can apply the cedar-infused water to wash away the layers of trauma and promote healing from within.

Timmins is a health and cultural support worker for the Indian Residential School Support Services (IRSS) in Batchewana, Ontario. The IRSS health support program provides mental health and emotional support services to residential school survivors and to their families. Working with survivors and their families, Timmins offered real-world examples of reconciliation in practice to the program.

Learning with the other grandmothers in the program was as equally significant as learning with the younger students.

“Walking this journey with the other grandmothers in the program was an honour,” says Timmins. “Even though we have different protocols and practices as Indigenous and First Nations peoples, the shared respect for our lands and our medicines strengthen our relationships in all realms of our well-being.”

The journey continues

While the journey may come to an end for some of the students come convocation, Manitowabi and Timmins are not ready to hang up their backpacks just yet.

Laurier’s Faculty of Social Work will pilot a full-time Indigenized PhD in social work program in the fall of 2018 – a program both women are keen to be part of.

Manitowabi would like to pursue doctoral research on cedar bath practitioners in Canada, something she wouldn’t have considered before participating in the MSW program.

“The topic of ‘research’ normally would have put a bad taste in my mouth, based on historical evidence of our people being researched,” says Manitowabi. “I have learned that I can conduct research by implementing Indigenous methodologies of my own accord. I can distinguish now that we have to write our own versions as opposed to having non-natives dissecting our stories.”

Timmins is also considering doctoral work if she can balance her schedule of speaking engagements with the intensive program format. She’s committed to educating Canadian youth about the residential school systems, speaking frequently at colleges and universities across Ontario. In June 2018, she will travel to Switzerland where she will be the elder-in-residence at an international conference on Indigenous studies.

Until their applications are due, both Manitowabi and Timmins hope to spend time with their families before jumping back in to schoolwork.

“They keep me busy,” says Manitowabi, of her 11 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, whom she feels fortunate to see regularly. Timmins has five grandchildren who continue to play a significant role in her life.

Both women say the Indigenous Field of Study program helped them ‘find their voice’ and ‘their purpose’ – learning opportunities that may have been missed had they not decided to make themselves a priority.

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