by John Copley
(ANNews) – On May 23 NorQuest College hosted its second annual Indigenous Achievement Ceremony, a college-launched initiative that recognizes the achievements of every First Nation, Métis and Inuit student who completes their program of studies in the current school year. This year the event was held in the spacious upper-floor dining room at Amiskwaciy Academy, 159 Airport Road in Edmonton. Elders Francis Whiskeyjack and Tony Arcand, along with staff and flag carriers, Elders Mary Moonias and Delores Cardinal and NorQuest CEO Jodi Abbott, led the large Grand Entry procession around the room before stopping at the main stage.
Saskatchewan-born Métis team-builder, retreat leader and professional life skills coach Orest Zwozdesky specializes in working with Indigenous businesses, institutions and organizations to improve and optimize their organizational effectiveness and their ability to retain staff. Working with NorQuest’s Indigenous programs for the past three years, Zwozdesky lauded students, administrators, sponsors and the community for “the outstanding support we get for and by our students. From where we started, to where we are now, to the direction we are taking, it’s been amazing and it’s great to be a part of NorQuest College. There are many good things happening at the college right now and the future is bright. Today we come here to honour our Indigenous learners, an important occasion where we celebrate the achievements of our graduating students.”
“It is my absolute privilege to be here today to celebrate your accomplishments,” declared NorQuest President and CEO, Dr. Judy Abbott, who acknowledged Treaty 6 Territory, gratefully recognized the ongoing participation of NorQuest resident Elders, Mary Moonias and Tony Arcand and enthusiastically applauded the “Indigenous achievers we celebrate today.”
Abbott talked about the importance of a viable education and the hard work and dedication needed to succeed. She also spoke at length on the soon-to-be-completed Singhmar Centre, currently under construction in Edmonton at 107 Street and 103 Avenue. The new $112 million, four-story, 22,500 square metre building is 95 percent complete and when finished will house classrooms, labs, meeting places, food services, a daycare, a brand new much larger library and more.
“We are very excited about the new building and the space it will add for students attending the college,” noted Dr. Abbott in a recent interview. “The Singhmar Centre for Learning will also house an Indigenous Student Centre and a central atrium.”
The Singhmar Centre for Learning’s Indigenous Student Centre will be ventilated to allow for the use of sage and sweetgrass during smudging and other cultural ceremonies. Natural sunlight and the beautiful art created for the project by Kainai/Blood artist Kalum Teke Dan will add a welcoming touch to the new Centre for Learning, which will be connected to the existing South Learning Centre.
The Singhmar Centre is part of a larger $194 million project that is updating the campus and retrofitting the existing Heritage Tower (completion scheduled for 2018). The province has contributed $170 million; Ottawa has added another $1.2 million. To date community donors have raised one million dollars for the daycare and the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation donated another $1.5 million. Doctors and entrepreneurs Prem and Saroj Singhmar, for whom the Centre is named, donated $2.5 million to the new Centre.
To enhance the opportunity for students studying English as a second language, the new library, among many other things, will house a collection of children’s books so that students and their children can learn together.
Alberta Aboriginal Construction Career Centre Manager Ruby Littlechild offered a few words of wisdom and heart-felt encouragement when she told the gathering that as “a fifteen-year-old teenage mother, I wasn’t able to graduate from high school.”
At 18 years of age, however, that opportunity presented itself again and she returned to school, finished her Grade 12 as an Honour Student at Alberta Vocational Centre (now Northern Lakes College) in Grouard, and soon after found a job in the field of mental health care. Littlechild pursued her desire for a better education and earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alberta and completed her Master’s in Education Degree from Gonzaga University in 2012. She is currently working on her Master’s in Business Administration.
Littlechild told the audience that her family, like so many other Indigenous families, found themselves “caught in the traps of colonization and the residential school era,” and noted that though breaking free takes both courage and self-assurance, both can be readily achieved.
“I love learning,” she stated, and as such “I can offer you a few words of wisdom. My advice to NorQuest Indigenous graduates is to participate in our ceremonies; get to know your roots. Once you know who you are, you can heal yourselves. Become mentors and role models and be proud of who you are. When you are able to help yourself, you will be able to help others; believe in yourself and you can overcome any obstacle on your road to success.”
Addressing the students, Elder Delores Cardinal said she was “really proud of all the students here today. I have seen them, talked to them, worked with them, prayed with them and cried with them. I’m proud to stand here today and to have been a part of your journey to success. As you continue through life, be proud of yourselves and continue to be role models for others. I am both thankful and proud that you have graduated from NorQuest College. I also offer my thanks to all of the staff members for making NorQuest a safe and comfortable place to go to school.”
Indigenous Relations Manager Robert Bear reiterated the words of Elder Cardinal and offered sincere congratulations to each of the 127 Indigenous achievers who completed their studies at NorQuest this year. As each student made his and her way to the podium to receive a diploma they were met and congratulated by Elders, college administrators and staff. The traditional and jubilant toss of headgear followed the celebration.
Student Crystal Thompson enrolled at NorQuest three years ago. She began with the academic upgrading and then moved into the Social Work Program; this year she competed the two-year program and earned her diploma.
“It’s not over just yet,” she smiled in an interview. “I’m now officially ready to work and I am registered as a student social worker. I have about 830 hours of work experience to complete before I can be qualified as a full time licensed social worker.”
When Thompson entered the upgrading program she already had a plan to become involved in social work. She wants to help others overcome their addictions. She wants to encourage youth to live a healthy and substance-free life and she wants to promote positive activity with younger children and ensure that they have opportunities to succeed.
“I came from a home where alcohol and substance abuse prevailed; I was determined not to fall into that lifestyle. When my mom died a few of years ago my world changed – I lost the respect of my family, my friends, myself. I lost everything, my job, my self-respect, my children. One day I woke up and said enough is enough – this is not who I want to be; I’m better than this.
“I checked myself into an Indigenous treatment centre. It’s been nearly five years (September) since I became sober and my life has taken a sharp turn for the better. I hope to be able to offer advice and suggest treatment options for others caught in the cycle of abuse. I want to make a positive difference in the lives of others; that is why I chose social work as my career choice. I’ve really enjoyed the three years I’ve spent at NorQuest. “The college has continued to help me overcome personal demons and to gain some real insight as to why these social ailments continue to haunt the Indigenous community. I hope to be part of the positive change that’s needed to ensure that we can all live lives we can be proud of.”
An evening meal that included Alberta beef, roasted potatoes, three-cheese perogies, braised baby cabbage rolls and tons of salad and desert choices polished off the day. Indigenous entertainers treated the crowd to some outstanding performance. Prairie Chicken Dancer Boomer Keewatin and Fancy Shawl Dancer Thundra Redstar delighted the gathering with their up-tempo dancing while flutist Amanda Lamothe soothed the crowd with a medley of soft sounding songs. The resonating melodies of the flute echoed across the room in an earthy fashion with a unique sound that fluttered and bounced beautifully throughout the room.
NorQuest College is Edmonton region’s only community college serving 15,850 students annually throughout the province in full-time, part-time, distance learning, and regional programs. NorQuest College helps learners with diverse educational backgrounds complete or further their studies through foundational and continuing education programs. The college’s post-secondary diploma and certificate programs offer career paths in health, community studies, and business. The college collaborates with business, industry, government and communities, and helps to ensure that their post-secondary education is both necessary and workforce relevant.
About 92 percent of NorQuest graduates are employed within the first few months after graduation.