Elders provide vital virtual cultural connection during pandemic

June 19, 2020

Normally, Elders drop by the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) at SFU Burnaby twice a week and are available to chat with students.

“It lifts up our spirits to share stories, laugh and share songs and prayers,” says Squamish Nation Elder Syexwaliya (Ann Whonnock). 

But those visits can’t happen due to the pandemic.

One of the most challenging programs to offer virtually is the Elders Program. Elders are highly respected in Indigenous culture for their role as knowledge keepers, imparting wisdom and cultural teachings to the next generation.

Staff worked with the Elders to continue offering the sessions virtually, helping to troubleshoot setting up a Zoom account for Elder Syexwaliya and booking appointments for students to text Skawahlook First Nation Elder Margaret George.

“The transition to making the program available virtually was an awesome idea by the ISC team and my hands are up to them in gratitude and thanks,” says Elder Syexwaliya. “It was easy and has been an important way to stay connected with my ISC family.”

Elder Syexwaliya is currently a student herself, in SFU’s Beedie School of Business working towards completing the Executive MBA in Indigenous Business Leadership program. “I know how stressful this is for students and even harder when they have no family support and only each other. I ask what they are majoring in and what their hopes are for the future and when possible support them."

“It helps our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing to have this time together and know we are connected even if virtually.”

An engaged Indigenous community

“A number of our students have moved away from their families and communities to attend university,” says Marcia Guno, director of the Centre, which has been working hard to continue programming. “So we’ve needed to figure out a way to get our programming moved online and make sure our students know that we’re there for them.”

Guno notes there is a strong Indigenous community on campus and a high level of engagement with the ISC’s programs – more than 4,000 students visited the centre last year.

Beading, bannock & more

The ISC has continued to offer all of our regular support programming online, including our virtual academic and financial aid advising sessions. Since the pandemic we have started some new virtual programs. The ISC has resumed our popular weekly Cultural Connections workshop online.  For six years now, the ISC has offered weekly Cultural Connections workshops, which provides safe space for Indigenous students to work on a cultural activity or project together, such as beading, painting, sewing or participating in drumstick and bannock-making workshops.

For some of our virtual workshops, students were mailed materials such as baking ingredients for bannock, and materials for our drumstick-making workshop. New to our programming included a bannock making workshop lead by an ISC student named Zac, and also a new ISC virtual book club, the books were generously donated by the SFU Library and mailed out by colleagues in SFU Health & Counselling.

Guno identifies that a key aspect to delivery of student-centered programming in a virtual world, is the ability to be innovative and to think outside the box.

"All of our ISC programming reflects what Indigenous students have told us they want and need; in our monthly town hall meetings we listen to students and aim to provide programming that meets their needs," she says. "We thank our campus friends who have helped us get the book club going.  Working in collaboration with our colleagues across SFU reflects how we work in the ISC."

The Zoom Netflix Party night is one of the ISC programs Métis student Emily Barker-Voisine participates in.

“All of these programs are great ways to stay connected with other Indigenous students, and our sessions are fun and filled with laughter, which is especially important during these times," she says. “Through these programs I made friends and have stayed connected to the ISC and SFU during COVID-19.”