“It’s actually been 20 years since I first stepped foot in this university,” says Shianne McDermott, reflecting on the journey that led her to MacEwan University from Saddle Lake, the First Nations reserve where she spent most of her time growing up. Now 32, McDermott is enrolled in open studies at MacEwan with the intention of entering the professional communication degree program.
“I remember walking across the pedway and seeing the pool and the gym, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’” she says. “I realize that, at that moment in my life, I was actually picturing myself being somewhere, you know — being in a university.”
It’s easy enough to take higher education for granted. According to a 2017 OECD report, more than half of Canadians hold a post-secondary degree. For many of us, university is the logical choice after high school, particularly in a credentials-based economy where jokes about the bachelor’s degree being the new high school diploma hit alarmingly close to home. But the high-school-to-university transition isn’t a given for everyone. Some of us follow different paths entirely, and for others, the road twists and turns before bringing us back to formal learning.
Getting to MacEwan has been a long journey for McDermott. After leaving Saddle Lake with her boyfriend the summer before Grade 10, she dropped out of school to focus on work. She held a series of customer service jobs in St. Paul and Edmonton before one of her bosses, a family friend who was impressed with her work ethic, suggested she return to school.
She applied for funding to upgrade, but she was initially rejected; she was young enough that her parents’ income still counted against her eligibility for student loans, and her band didn’t fund upgrading at the time. She was also penalized for dropping out of high school.
Then, when she was 19, she found out she was pregnant. McDermott put her plans for school on hold while she had her son and, a couple of years later, her daughter. Her partner, whom she had been with for six years at this point, supported the family by getting a job on an oil rig. Together they moved back to Saddle Lake to be closer to family, but McDermott left the relationship when her partner’s alcohol use became a problem.
During this time, she was approved for funding from Alberta Works and finished her high school upgrading at Norquest College. But before she could apply to Norquest’s business administration program, where she eventually ended up, McDermott was sexually assaulted.
“I had a really hard time focusing, and things just kind of started to fall apart personally,” McDermott says. “I didn’t grieve. I didn’t handle it in a healthy way. All I did was I threw myself into school.”
“Finishing that upgrading and not having to pay back that bursary was really important. I literally could not afford to fail.”
She turned to alcohol and drugs for a time, but she got back on track with support from her family. Then, during the final semester of her diploma, she was offered a communications position at Bigstone Health Commission, the healthcare authority on the reserve where she was born.
She took the job, and she loved it. But after five years with the organization, she wondered whether additional education would help her feel more confident in her work. She decided to return to MacEwan to find out.
Now a year and a half in, McDermott is thrilled with her choice. “I feel like I’ve gotten so much more than I had ever hoped (from university),” she says.
She focuses her assignments on First Nations issues and history and has made some startling discoveries in the process. She learned, for instance, that her great-great-great-grandfather — an Irish immigrant to Canada — signed Treaty 8 on behalf of a First Nations group. The realization that colonialism was a key part of her own family’s history left her feeling shaken.
“I didn’t want oppression to be part of who I was because I grew up in a loving environment. I knew love,” she says about how difficult the news was to accept. “I don’t have the same background as other people do when they talk about being indigenous. I didn’t feel impoverished. I didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage.”
In so many ways, higher learning has challenged and expanded McDermott’s world view. Cherish Yellowbird, who was also born on a First Nations reserve, can say the same for herself.
Growing up in Maskwacis, Yellowbird loved anime — so it’s fitting that the first time she visited MacEwan was for Animethon.
“When I was younger, living on the reservation, that was my way of staying away from drugs,” she explains. “I found something I was interested in and that actually told inspiring stories, and I knew I wanted to be something better than the other teenagers (on my reserve) who went the other direction — like gangs and having babies in Grade 9.”
“Me, I was like, ‘No, no, no. No babies, please!’” she laughs.
Yellowbird, now 20, moved to Edmonton when she was 14.
“When I moved, I felt so grown up,” she recalls. But after the novelty of the big city wore off, she experienced intense culture shock. Everything was different from what she was used to and the cultural diversity left her feeling overwhelmed. She had panic attacks for the first six months.
“I didn’t want oppression to be part of who I was because I grew up in a loving environment. I knew love.”
As the oldest of 11 children, Yellowbird had moved to Edmonton to help her mom take care of her younger siblings. But family wasn’t the only reason she left the reserve.
“I also wanted a better education for myself,” she says.
“I could tell that what we were learning in our school was maybe a few years slower than what city schools would be. And it really proved that when I moved into Edmonton and went to my first city school.” Yellowbird was on the honour roll on her reservation and surrounding towns, but her marks dropped dramatically when she arrived in the city.
Shy and quiet in her new world, Yellowbird also had a difficult time making friends. On the reserve, everyone knows everyone else, and people are more up front with each other, she says. But challenges in her home life added to her difficulties.
“I did keep up with my studies for the first three months, and then it just got harder. My mom got worse with her drinking and partying, and there were days when I was left (looking after) random people’s children.”
“I was thinking of dropping out because no one in my family has finished high school, and I thought that’s the road I was going to take because I wasn’t passing,” she says. “I just felt like my only purpose in life was to take care of my siblings, because no one else was going to do it.”
For many indigenous families, including Yellowbird’s, intergenerational trauma caused by residential school is still an everyday reality.
“I can see how our life ended up that way,” she says. “(My grandmother) was badly abused. She was told not to speak her culture. And she took all that anger and hatred that she built up and took it out on my mom. And my mom took that out through drugs.”
The impact of residential school does decrease with each generation, says Yellowbird, but its effects linger.
“You can feel it and you can see it. When you watch how your parents respond or their mind works, or how they talk, you can see something’s a little off. It’s very sad.”
“I am part of the generation that had to take care of their siblings because there was no one there,” says Yellowbird, who knows other aboriginal people her age in similar situations. “I feel like it’s a new generation that people are not aware of.”
Luckily, things turned around for Yellowbird in Grade 11. She made some friends and joined a hip-hop dance crew. She also met her boyfriend, whom she has been with for four years now. After moving in with him and his family during Grade 12, she continued to visit her siblings every Sunday to help with cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping. She later upgraded her social studies and enrolled in Asia Pacific studies at MacEwan.
At school, she focuses on how Asian countries have grown from tragedies and looks for concrete actions that will improve life for people in indigenous communities in Canada. Yellowbird is concerned, however, about the tendency she sees for people on reserves to emphasize tradition over growth — a real problem when some First Nations communities don’t have Wi-Fi or cellphone service.
“I feel like we need to be open to new ideas. Because whenever I bring an idea like that to anybody, they’ll say, ‘How are you gonna do that, though?’ They see the obstacles. I just want to see how we could get there.”
Limited thinking is not restricted to indigenous communities. She says she regularly experiences racism on campus, especially on social media apps like Chillabit.
“I am part of the generation that had to take care of their siblings because there was no one there.”
A typical issue she sees is the criticism First Nations people receive for getting “free” schooling. But Yellowbird says she had to pay fees for attending high school off her reserve, and that only one out of every four students from her reserve who apply for university funding get approved. These students are the hardest working, have the best marks, and have already been accepted into post-secondary programs.
She uses Mario Kart as a metaphor to explain why some First Nations students do receive funding: in the game, the person in first place gets fewer special items than the people further behind. This helps keep things fair.
“That’s equity — trying to make sure other people can get ahead, too,” Yellowbird says.
Despite the challenges she faces, Yellowbird stays focused on the positives. Both she and McDermott continue to care for their communities and hope to inspire other indigenous students to pursue post-secondary education no matter the twists in the road.
Graphics by Kia Valdez Bettcher.