March 11, 2024

Lighting the Way for Reconciliation and Representation

The transformative journey of Shawna Cunningham, EdD’23, and her pioneering work in Indigenous education, illuminating paths for reconciliation and empowerment in post-secondary institutions.
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It was a cold snowy day in Edmonton in the early 1990s. A yellow school bus, with about twenty Indigenous youth from a remote Northern Alberta First Nation community, arrived at the University of Alberta just before lunch. The group of youth accompanied by two teachers made their way over to the main campus cafeteria, the long bus ride behind them and the school’s great promise of a new and adventurous educational journey in front of them. Having finished their lunch, the youth gathered together in semi circle, waiting to listen to Shawna Cunningham, an Indigenous recruiter, explain what the University of Alberta had to offer them. The visit was to start with an admission presentation, followed by a campus tour.   

In the next few hours, Cunningham’s life would irrevocably change.  

A brief but stinging comment, delivered casually by a non-Indigenous teacher at the beginning of her presentation ignited a transformative moment for Cunningham. Cunningham shared that the cutting comment fueled her career in Indigenous post-secondary education as well as her own academic journey towards a doctorate degree, becoming the first UCalgary recipient and third Canadian since 1982 to receive the prestigious Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award (2023) 

Shawna Cunningham

On that cold November day in 1991, Cunningham was an Indigenous student recruiter, her first job in post-secondary education. Her duties included traveling throughout Central and Northern Alberta First Nations, Métis schools, and adult learning centres to provide admissions information. She also welcomed Indigenous youth to the university campus for tours and information sessions. 

On this particular day, she was just getting ready to start her admissions presentation when she was interrupted by one of the non-Indigenous teachers.  

“The teacher asked if I could skip over the information about admissions and just take the students on a tour of the campus. She said that they were short of time and stated something to the effect that ‘majority of the students present aren’t really university material anyway.’ She made this comment in front of the twenty or so Indigenous youth standing before us, and my heart just broke for them.” She did not heed and carried on with a full presentation on admissions as we walked slowly through the campus. They were eager and intent on listening.  

From that moment onward, Cunningham’s role as an Indigenous recruiter wasn’t just a job, it was a career with a definitive purpose that lit a new path forward. Cunningham became a passionate advocate for Indigenous students, education, and mentorship programs. Programs that would build a sense of pride, confidence, and cultural belonging for Indigenous youth in higher education. She embraced a career in post-secondary education, and through her work, continues to advocate passionately for meaningful Indigenous inclusion.  

Cunningham went on to work as an Indigenous Student Advisor at Mount Royal University, before moving to UCalgary as the director of the Writing Symbols Lodge Indigenous student centre and more recently director of the Indigenous strategy at the university. Her doctoral research focused on truth-telling, advocacy, and sharing Indigenous lives and experiences in post-secondary education. The dissertation, completed in Werklund School of Education in the fall of 2022, provides insight into Indigenous experiences at UCalgary and offers a beacon for hope for meaningful Indigenous inclusion in higher education, leading towards a shared understanding of reconciliation, in a good way. 

“It was during that incident in 1991, that I made a conscious decision in my career and academic pursuits, to do my part to create a welcome environment in higher education for Indigenous students. This commitment came from a deep place of compassion and determination to make a difference.  A moment like that is transformational, offering both a gift and a challenge. It’s a moment where your mind and heart connect to your spirit. You realize the depth of lesson embedded in that moment, and you are transformed.” 

Advancing Decolonization and Indigenization Efforts

Consequently, the CGS ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in humanities and fine arts for her doctoral dissertation at the Werklund School of Education, Stories from Inside the Circle: Embodied Indigeneity and Resurgent Practice in Post-secondary Institutions, shines. Cunningham shares the storied experience of nine Indigenous leaders of Indigenous student centres, putting the spotlight on public post-secondary institutions in Canada who are engaging in sustainable acts of reconciliation through education.  

The CGS is an organization of approximately 500 institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada engaged in graduation education, research and the preparation of candidates for advanced degrees. 

“What is important about the award, for me, is that the lived experience of these leaders who sit within the institutions and oversee these Indigenous student centres, is shared through the dissertation and the stories and insights they offer,” says Cunningham, EdD’23, who is currently serving as the acting vice-provost (Indigenous engagement). Indigenous student service centres in public postsecondary institutions have, for almost 50 years, been central places for decolonization and Indigenization work, creating safe cultural spaces for Indigenous Peoples. 

“These centres create a culturally safe learning environment for Indigenous students, their families, and their communities,” says Cunningham. “If you have been in the profession for as long as I have, you start to see the children of students who you had advised years ago. These places and spaces acquire meaning over time. The work lives and stays within the memory of the institutions, the students, the staff, the leaders, and the community.” 

Indigenous student centres typically provide holistic, wrap-around services and recognize the distinct experiences and diverse ways of knowing that Indigenous students bring to the academy. As noted in the abstract of her dissertation, “the call for reconciliation through education (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) has compelled public post-secondary institutions in Canada to engage in meaningful and sustainable acts of reconciliation through systemic transformation”. 

Her study, “offers insight into the roles of the Indigenous leaders at these centres, their experiences, and their perspectives on decolonization and indigenization unfolding in public post-secondary institutions across Canada, now responsive to the call for reconciliation through education.” 

Rooted in Alberta Land and History

Through her family tree, Cunningham has deep roots in different regions of Alberta. These roots entwine her Indigenous history with a love of the land and a deep respect for traditions that inform how she stays firmly grounded in her Métis identity.  

Coming from a long line of Métis families, Cunningham has ancestral ties in north central Alberta, yet was born and raised in southern Alberta. We might consider her as perfectly placed for the work she is doing, promoting mutual understanding at the crossroads of reconciliation in the province and the country. 

“I lived within the beauty of the Porcupine Hills, a sprawling landscape in the heart of Blackfoot Country, where the grasses blow in the wind and where the mountains turn,” says Cunningham. I feel like I am home when “I gain sight of the winding waterways of Oldman River, where the prairie grassland opens to coulees or when I catch the distinct smell of pine in the air closer to Waterton Lakes. I carry these land memories and sensory experiences with me, wherever I go.” 

Cunningham’s grandfather attended residential school in the Lesser Slave Lake region, while her grandmother attended residential day school in St. Albert. Cunningham notes, “I grew up with a mix of Indigenous and Catholic spirituality,” she says. “I have learned from my father to be true to myself.  To take the time to learn and understand who I am and where I came from by acknowledging those who came before. He taught me to take the time to reflect on my experiences, embrace the spiritual teachings that resonate, and share the knowledge acquired as I strive to be and become a kinder person. A person who can help others.” 

Cunningham completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Lethbridge, majoring in theatre and minoring in Native American Studies. After a short career in the theatre, Cunningham moved to Edmonton to work as an Indigenous recruiter in higher education and to pursue a masters degree.  Cunningham lived there for about five years, spending the weekends with her grandmother, who was a strong Métis Catholic. She spent almost every Sunday with her grandmother, listening to family stories, sharing tea and bannock, and often attending mass in St. Albert.  Following the mass, they would stroll through the cemetery on Mission Hill to visit her grandfather and other relatives who have passed on. Her grandmother would stop along the way to say a prayer and share stories as she visited the burial plots of her parents and grandparents, great aunts and uncles - relatives dating back to the late 1800s. On Saturdays, they went to the Métis dances.  

Through my grandmother “I began to explore a rich and colourful family history that included stories of the fur trade, fiddles, famine, disease, and resilience. Métis history in the Edmonton region unfolded along the banks of the the Edmonton River Valley and within the Big Lake Métis settlement in St. Albert. My family history and the land that holds our story, really grounded me in my own Métis identity.” 

In her award-winning dissertation, Cunningham threads her family’s history and their ties to Métis communities in St. Albert, Grouard, Lesser Slave Lake and Lac St. Anne into the thesis by creatively using vignettes and prose. 

Lighting The Way Forward

Overall, Cunningham is hoping that her dissertation will increase awareness of the importance Indigenous Student Centres and the work the leaders do to engage Indigenous students and the broader community in higher education.  

Perhaps the study can light the way forward for all Canadians, much as Cunningham’s transformative moment did for her all those years ago. 

“Becoming a champion for Indigenous youth, providing inspiration as well as information for them to move forward in higher education, became my focus. Seeing these students succeed, and to be able to share in their feelings of accomplishment and pride with others is such a gift.”  

ii’ taa’ poh’ to’p

Cunningham, along with Jackie D. Sieppert, co-chaired the Working Group for ii’ taa’ poh’ to’p. Together they worked tirelessly to connect with the university community and external community-based stakeholders to develop an authentic foundation for UCalgary’s path toward reconciliation. During two years of consultation leading up to the strategy launch in 2017, they collaborated with Traditional Knowledge Keepers, Indigenous educators and campus representatives to build a framework that focused on wisdom and collective storytelling from an Indigenous worldview.