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Celebrating and honouring traditional knowledge

By Laura Woodford

Nineteen Memorial University students watch as Elder Miriam Lyall lights the kudlik, a ceremonial soapstone oil lamp. Chief Misel Joe, Miawpukek First Nation, offers an opening prayer, and the workshop has officially begun.

The students enrolled in Memorial's Nunatsiavut bachelor of social work program, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, designed and facilitated the daylong workshop that brought community elders and students together to share knowledge.

As part of the Research Capacity Building Workshops for Working Alongside Atlantic Aboriginal Communities, the workshop covered topics such as honouring traditional knowledge and cultural inclusion. Students gave presentations and showed a video of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Elders' Project. At the centre of the exercise was an opportunity for the students to give back to the elders and to present what they learned about traditional knowledge.

"From the beginning of the bachelor of social work program here in Labrador, the elders have been involved in our learning," said student Krista Mogridge, a native of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. "When learning about social issues, the elders depended on their spiritual beliefs and their connection to the land to find solutions that worked well for the communities and kept community cohesion.
Our bachelor of social work group hopes to take the knowledge that we learn from Memorial's School of Social Work and from the elders to provide best practices for our Inuit communities in the future."

The Nunatsiavut bachelor of social work program is unique in that it formed through partnership between Memorial University, the Nunatsiavut Government, the Labrador Institute and the College of the North Atlantic. It is offered solely to Inuit students in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Students enrolled in the Nunatsiavut Government-sponsored, four-year program receive instruction in the accredited, standardized social work program of study and have two field placements in the community, much like their counterparts in the bachelor of social work program in St. John's. However, traditional Inuit knowledge and cultural norms are interwoven into each course.

Nunatsiavut Government program organizers facilitate cultural orientations for Memorial personnel and work closely with instructors. The aim is to ensure Inuit culture is reflected in course content as well as in the processes used to implement culturally relevant practices and traditions, such as learning and healing circles, on the land experiences, organizing classes in more natural settings, bringing Inuit guests into the classroom and ensuring the meaningful involvement of elders.

"It is our goal that graduating social workers will have the knowledge and skills to enable them to combine standardized social work practices with approaches that better reflect those they hope to assist – the Inuit of Labrador," said Sandy Kershaw, bachelor of social work program co-ordinator, Nunatsiavut Government.

According to Dr. Alean Al-Krenawi, dean, School of Social Work at Memorial, informing social work practice in these Inuit communities is one goal.

"This collaboration is seeing everyone learning from each other – students and professors, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people – and it will help to create a better understanding between cultures and contribute to the social work body of knowledge. The model for this program is one that can be used with other indigenous populations around the world as well."

Martha MacDonald, associate director, Labrador Institute of Memorial University, said the program was developed and is a model for future collaborations to be delivered entirely on-site in Labrador.