Bringing Understanding to the community

By Fernando Arce
February 27, 2014

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Summer Bressette has decided to undertake a monumental journey – changing the “lopsided vision” Canadians have about First Nations people. 

That journey began about three years ago in a small classroom at Western, where she did her masters in the Leadership in the Aboriginal Education program.

Bressette, 37, graduated in 2013 from this specialized branch of the Master of Professional Education in the Faculty of Education. Now, she’s a traditional healthy lifestyles worker at the Southwestern Ontario Indigenous Health Access Centre (SOIHAC), where she educates First Nations people about diabetes, and helps them achieve a smoke-free lifestyle.


SOIHAC also partnered with the university earlier in the year to establish a research initiative called The Bimaadiziwin Learning Experience (‘a good life’ in the Anishinaabe language). The five-day camp for First Nation youth reconnects them with their culture through activities like speaking with elders and participating in a research study.

“The researchers were non-indigenous and very receptive and eager to learn more,” Bressette said. “We need to do more of (that) – not just educate our children, but involve non-indigenous people in the learning.”

That's the idea behind the Leadership in Aboriginal Education program, opened to indigenous and non-indigenous people. Bressette said it allows students who come from the education industry, to gain a “greater understanding and appreciation of the students and the communities they work with.”

The program has 18 students in current cohort; there were 12 in the second and 15 in the first.

Bressette, an Anishinaabe-kwe from the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, is a graduate of the second cohort of students, when the program partnered with that same First Nation. The partnerships have changed with each academic year. When it began in 2007, the partnership was with the Walpole Island First Nation; currently, in its third year, it’s with the Oneida Nation of the Thames.

Rebecca Coulter, program founder and former director, said the turnover in partnerships is to target various communities and empower leaders that can embark on the same journey as Bressette.

“It’s a partnership between those of us who work (at Western) and First Nations communities,” she said, “(because) the university is a publicly funded institution that has the responsibility to the wider community, to social justice and equity.”

The idea for the program dates to 2006, when a principal at the Walpole Island Elementary School requested something be done to educate educators about issues plaguing indigenous communities. By that time, Coulter had garnered enough media attention as a political activist and, as a 25-year veteran professor at Western, she used that weight to recommend the program to the university.

Coulter had proposed over 120 recommendations to the Walpole Island Elementary School after evaluating it; only the top three could be chosen. The graduate program was one of them.

The program runs for two years and focuses on matters including the history of colonization and the ways legislations like the Indian Act have affected indigenous relations in Canada.

Coulter stressed the importance of these political implications.

“I like to think that all my teaching is political,” she said. “Anybody who pretends they’re not doing political work in a classroom is not fully conscious about what they’re doing.”

Brent Debassige, professor in the Faculty of Education, said he knows the process will be slow, but is happy to see the ball is already rolling.

“Indigenous faculty, staff and (students) are beginning to come into the university and be part of a critical mass so that there can be an influence of change regarding policy, regulations and programming,” he said. “We’re (then) taking it out of the context of the institution and actually placing it into the community.”

Bressette said the leadership in aboriginal education program is, above all, a tool to inspire indigenous people to re-learn and promote their rich culture by getting young people interested in things as basic as their languages.

“We have an endangered language in (Kettle and Stony Point) because we have no fluent speakers who are under the age of 65,” she said. “We need to go back to traditional values – reconnecting with our elders and bringing their knowledge to the table.”


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