Meeting Mary Simon

I have been travelling aboard the Canada C3 ship, the Polar Prince for the past week with Mary Simon, an Inuit leader and advocate for education. Mary is an Elder in both the traditional and modern sense. Her career as an advocate for education spans more than four decades. In her role as the chairperson of the National Committee on Inuit Education, Mary and members of the national committee travelled across Inuit Nunangat listening to communities speak about their needs of education in the north, and out of this came the report First Canadians, Canadians First: a national strategy on Inuit education. Appointed by Indigenous and northern Affairs Minister Carolynn Bennett in 2016, Mary wrote an independent report titled A New Shared Arctic Leadership Model which recommends education as the key to healthy people and social and economic progress. She further states the need to build on the 2011 national strategy on Inuit education for K-12 and extends this to a call for an Arctic University. On the second day of our journey, she spoke in Cambridge Bay about her report, specifically the call for an Arctic University created by Inuit for Inuit. However, with federal funding for universities being cut across the country and enrolment in many universities declining, -why would anyone advocate for yet another university when young people can simply go south?

My response to that question begins with my own story. I began my education in Nunavut, and left to complete my education in the south, this is the story of many young Inuit people who want to pursue higher education. I can’t speak to Inuit experiences, but I can tell you about mine. As a southerner I presumably had a much easier transition because I was raised with my feet in both worlds.  However, as a teenager when I entered school in the south, believe it or not, I faced a major culture shock, the school was bigger, louder, and more formal than anything I had ever experienced. I became lost in the sea of voices. I left a school where everyone knew my name, knew my family and knew who I was as a person, because we were all so interconnected in our community. All of a sudden, I was anonymous. More than anonymous – I was invisible. I had been taught to be humble, to not stand out too much, to speak slowly, and to speak quietly, and wait for the elders to speak first. It was easy to pass through days being un-seen, I sat in the back row of all my classes so that I could easily escape the room if I needed to, and I did not speak, not because I did not want to, but because I could not get a word in the fast paced conversations. These are the very same issues that Mary and others have identified for Inuit students in southern universities. With grade 12 graduation rates for Indigenous youth increasing, there are more and more young people entering post-secondary, however many of them are not making it past their first year of university. Those statistics haven’t really changed much, despite over 30 years of investment in transitions and bridging programs for post-secondary programming. The programming that appears to work best is based within communities and/or with leadership, teachers, and mentors that are able to advocate for their students, which allow for flexibility of family demands and holistic services that offer support on everything from housing to counselling.  By taking a young person out of their community, in essence you take away all of these things – an entire network of support that is provided by the community. So rather than supporting students to transition into a southern system, why not invest resources in letting students stay home where the transition is much easier?

The first year of university is hard for everyone and young people need to adapt to the new environment of university which is more often than not based on an industrial model that probably isn’t serving anyone as well as it used to. It’s not just Mary calling for educational reform, universities in the south based on traditional models are being critiqued as well. Mary points us in a positive direction. Now is the time to (re)vision what university can look like, based on more inclusive values. What if education looked different? What would a university by Inuit, for Inuit look like and how would that change graduation rates? ITK will be releasing a report in the fall of 2017, based on the Inuit Education forum held in Nain on February, 2017. At the forum, Inuit educators and long term northern residents were asked about the challenges and proposed solutions to support student success. Meaningful pathways for next steps is part of that conversation.  Mary asks us to think strategically.  Beyond the immediate benefits for students, and an Arctic University poises Canada to become leaders in a new educational model, that reflects all Canadians and could be something the world can learn from. We need more strong Inuit leaders like Mary Simon and an Arctic University would provide an opportunity to create them.