Building leadership in Aboriginal education

By: Heather Travis
Monday, March 16, 2009

John Snake dreamed about completing graduate studies in a First Nations community, but he never thought it would happen in his lifetime.

A member of Delaware Nation, the 60-year-old is now living his dream. He is a University of Western Ontario student in the M.Ed. program focusing on leadership for First Nation schools, taught at Walpole Islan

As a youngster, Snake attended school on the Moravian of the Thames reserve until Grade 4, when he was then bussed to a nearby public elementary school.

Snake quit school in Grade 10 to begin working full-time, but he never gave up his desire to learn. It would be several years before he decided to return to complete his high school education.

“Wisdom is the goal of all First Nations people,” he says. “I always had it in the back of my head to go back.”

As a band council member for Moraviantown Delaware Nation, Snake experienced frustration in dealing with government officials from the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs because he didn’t understand all of the terms used in some of the contracts.

Most of the members of the band council did not exceed a Grade 12 education. Instead of relying on people outside of their community to interpret the language and documents, “we needed some people with post-secondary education,” he says.

So at the age of 42, with family in tow, Snake resigned from council and began the Indigenous Management and Economic Development program at Trent University. What started as a two-year program turned into a four-year BA in Indigenous Studies and he began contemplating graduate studies.

“I never even thought of doing a master’s,” he says. “I didn’t think I was ready and I wanted to do it on the reserve.”

At the time, taking graduate studies in a First Nations community wasn’t an option. But after he heard about the graduate program at Walpole Island through Western’s Faculty of Education, he found what he was looking for.

Even though he was hospitalized at the time the program began, Snake wasn’t going to let it stop him from fulfilling a dream for himself and his community.

“It took me 10 years of waiting to find out finally there was going to be a graduate program on our territory and that’s the only time I would go back for a master’s degree. I didn’t think it would be in my lifetime.”

The program was launched in 2007 and has 15 students, mostly teachers or administrators in or around First Nations communities. The students study part-time at Walpole Island and online, as well as complete a research project.

The program was designed to help prepare students for leadership roles within their schools and communities, and examine policy and practice in First Nations' education.

Snake was an unlikely candidate for the program because he did not have a teaching background, however it was his experiences in the community that make him a good fit.

“For the non-native instructors, it was an important learning experience,” says Faculty of Education professor Rebecca Coulter, who spearheaded the program.

With only one Aboriginal instructor on staff, Coulter says faculty members learned from the rich experiences students brought to the classroom and by incorporating indigenous content into the leadership program.

The program has had 100 per cent student retention rate.

“It has been an extremely positive experience,” she says, adding a new cohort of students is expected to begin the program this summer.

As he approached the end of the program, Snake is not sure if his educational journey is over yet. He is considering completing a PhD.

Community leaders need education, he says.

Snake also received bursary from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, a non-profit organization to support Aboriginals, in his final year of study.

For more information about the M.Ed. program visit www.edu.uwo.ca/graduate/interested/MEd_Policy_int.html.