ISU offers services to Indigenous students at UAlberta

Indigenous Students' Union President Sophie Martel gifted "Reservation Dogs" actor Paulina Alexia with a Star Blanket during the University of Alberta Indigenous Celebration Week held in February. Photo by Deena Goodrunning.

By Deena Goodrunning, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – The Indigenous Students’ Union (ISU) is a student group at the University of Alberta that advocates for and represents Indigenous students on campus. Formerly known as the Aboriginal Student Council, ISU first began in the 1970s at the University of Alberta with the formation of the Native Students Club. Since then, ISU has had many Indigenous students at the University of Alberta come across its path.

On May 23 the current president of the ISU, Sophie Martel, spoke with ANNews and shared information on some of ISU’s many events and services. Martel is an Indigenous student originally from Onion Lake Cree Nation and is currently majoring in Criminology.

“The ISU is a student-run and led volunteer group that was built on advocacy for Indigenous students and then we got bigger to the point where we could become a Student Representative Association,” Martel explained. “Which means that we get funding so we can actually run events and provide scholarships.”

The funding ISU receives comes from DFU’s (Dedicated Fee Units) that are fees paid by students when they pay their tuition. Students have the option of opting out of paying the ISU DFU fee, but the fees go towards providing services for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students at the University of Alberta.

When asked about services that ISU provides, Martel spoke about the ISU lounge located on campus at the North Power Plant. The ISU lounge is intended to be a safe space for students to hang out at and study. The lounge features a community fridge and kitchen stocked with groceries and snacks for students to enjoy.

She said that ISU offers scholarships and childcare bursaries to students. They also provide grant funding for students and students’ groups on campus that want to hold cultural and educational Indigenous events.

Over the years, ISU has hosted and planned many events on campus for students. In the 1990s, ISU (then known as the Aboriginal Student Council) hosted traditional pow wows at the Butterdome.

This past year, ISU has organized a variety of different events. In September 2023, they organized and hosted the third annual Residential Schools Memorial in conjunction with the University of Alberta Students’ Union.

ISU also helped plan the third annual Indigenous Celebration Week, which featured performances by Juno award-winning singers The Bearhead Sisters and a keynote speech by Reservations Dogs actress Paulina Alexis.

They also organized and hosted an Indigenous Awards Celebration Night that took place in March 2024 that celebrated Indigenous students who have won awards from the university. That event included throat-singing by Jana Angulalik and Kristen Tologanak, a jigging performance by an ISU member Kenton Alook, and a musical performance by Juno award nominee Cikwes.

Some other events and activities they’ve hosted for students include beading workshops, poetry nights, movie nights. They also have the Otâpasinahikêw Art Community, an art club based out of ISU where activities have included workshops on rock carving and learning how to make corn earrings. Otâpasinahikêw translates to “artist who creates” in Cree. Martel additionally mentioned that the ISU hosts many Cree focused cultural events and activities, and that she would like to have more activities like Mohawk, Dene, Blackfoot cultural activities for students who aren’t Cree.

When asked what she would like to accomplish for ISU next year, Martel said: “I think of it in terms of what can we do as a team. And as a team, I’m really hoping that we can start to branch out and connect to more Indigenous students on campus that don’t know we exist, connect to other faculties and other Indigenous subgroups so that we can start being able to help students on a larger scale. It’s not something I’m sure we’ll be able to fully accomplish within the next year, but I’m hoping that leads down a path of being able to connect Indigenous student groups across campus and across Canada.”

Martel said that her favourite part about ISU “is being able to take part in such great events and being able to connect with different people across campus — as well as being able to be part of an advocacy group that helps fight for Indigenous rights, both on and off campus.”

When asked about challenges facing ISU, Martel said, “I think one of the biggest challenges right now is not being quite big enough for the university [to] take us more seriously. I think that we are able to have protests and have our voices heard, but that the bigger we get and the more voices we can add, the more we would be able to actually have the university listen and be able to move forward with positive change, like actually [having the university] follow their Braided Past, Present and Future: Indigenous Strategic Plan. Because so far as I’ve seen and as much as I’ve read through it, there’s a lot of promises that have been made that haven’t been followed through with.”

Martel said that if students would like to learn more about ISU or become more involved, they could drop by the lounge, email ISU ([email protected]) or sign up to their newsletter. When asked about any last things she would like to say, Martel said: “I want people to know that we’re definitely wanting to expand and be a bigger presence on campus — to be able to work and connect and build relationships with other student groups, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”

Learn more about the Indigenous Student Union at their official Instagram account or at their official website address:


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