Two Halifax universities are sharing a Mi’kmaw “auntie-in-residence” who is helping Indigenous students navigate campus life.
Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of King’s College said in a release on Wednesday that they are welcoming Emily Picto-Roberts as their first ‘Nsuqui’ – “auntie” in English – to provide cultural, emotional and spiritual support to students. have been
The 28-year-old said in an interview that there are about 164 Indigenous students at Mount St Vincent’s University and about 30 at King’s College. She said she spends one day a week at each campus.
Picto-Roberts said she was quickly accepted by Indigenous students, saying she hears their titles as she makes her way around campuses.
“I just listen to ‘Aunty, Aunty, Aunty’ all the time when I’m walking down the street,” she said.
The Sukuvi program is the first of its kind in the Atlantic region. Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology in Saskatoon hired an Auntie-in-Residence with similar responsibilities.
Picto-Roberts said universities can be intimidating environments for Indigenous students, who she said often feel like they are part of a small minority in an overwhelmingly non-Indigenous environment.
“In my first month, there have already been situations where I have been able to convince students that there is help and resources available for them,” she said.
“Here, when we are in a colonial institution like a university, we feel small and are afraid to ask for help.”
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Picto-Roberts said she sees her position as an extension of the traditional role of a Mi’kmaq auntie – a nurturing person who strives to “take care” of others.
“I helped with housing, food and little things that might prevent people from my culture from staying at university,” she said.
Mi’kmaq women, she said, are considered keepers of wisdom who help guide people through life’s challenges, adding that leadership in their culture is historically matriarchal.
But recovering cultural traditions and restoring lost language skills will be a long-term project, she said.
Picto-Roberts grew up in the First Nation community of Millbrook near Truro, NS, and attended a non-Indigenous high school along with many other Mi’kmaq students in her area.
She said that her grandfather attended a now-closed residential school in Shubenacadie, NS, where speaking Mi’kmaq was discouraged. As a result, he and his siblings lost the ability to speak their language.
Picto-Roberts said she began her journey of re-learning her language and culture while working at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre.
“Unfortunately most of the students I work with don’t speak Mi’kmaq? And that’s something we’re working on as a group,” she said. “We’re reviving the language lost in residential schools.”
She said that at the Indigenous center where she works, objects in the room are labeled with Mi’kmaq words and phonetic pronunciations describing them.
“Next semester I intend to invite other members of the indigenous communities and teach their language. There are many different dialects.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on November 23, 2022.