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The Cultural Resource Elders Program at Bow Valley College in Alberta provides the opportunity for learners to witness, experience, and ask questions about Indigenous ways of knowing and to learn about ceremony, spirituality, and history. The elders bring expertise as knowledge keepers, ceremonialists, and historians to the College. They’re the people who can share their knowledge with all learners and bring an important understanding of Indigenous experiences.

For Noella Wells, Director of the Iniikokaan Centre, Bow Valley College’s gathering place for Indigenous learners, the elders are an important touch point and a cornerstone of college culture. “Our elders give learners the knowledge, the encouragement, and the confidence because they’ve been there before. This is stuff you just don’t find on Google,” she says.

As Bow Valley College’s Indigenous student population has grown, the number of elders has also grown. Starting with one elder in 2008, there are now seven elders from across southern Alberta and Canada. These elders are an invaluable resource for Indigenous learners, as some learners have little or no connection to their Indigenous identity, culture, language, community, and ceremony. Through the elders, learners can find out who they are. The elders give them the knowledge, awareness, and confidence to say, “I am Cree, I am Tsuut’ina, I am Siksika, I am Piikani, I am Kainai, I am Niitsitapi.”

The elders are an important touch point and a cornerstone of college culture.

In addition to celebrating cultural, emotional, physical, and spiritual support, the elders act as influencers for learners and are proven to help with learner retention and graduation success. In the words of a recent Indigenous graduate: “I was thinking of quitting school, but the elders inspired me to stay in school to learn more and to help other people in the future, just like they did.” 

Many of the Cultural Resource Elders are survivors of residential schools. Their experiences, memories, and learnings provide understanding of the trauma that so many of Canada’s Indigenous peoples have experienced. The elders play an important role in keeping the conversation alive to make the world a better place for Indigenous peoples everywhere.

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