Two Worlds

Elders-in-Residence help build cultural bridges at NorQuest College

Smoke lifts in delicate blue threads from the smudge pot as the helper brings it around to each person in the circle to bathe in its wash – eyes, ears, heart, hands, mouth, or perhaps just a tentative waving of hands through smoke. This smoke – of sage, cedar, sweet grass and fungus – has been shown in recent scientific studies to have anti-bacterial properties. However, its healing work here is to unify. By sharing the smudge, people acknowledge that we are all part of a circle, and commit to being in harmony together, and it is good.

Smudging is an ancient practice in this land, but when First Nations religions were outlawed, smudging, like other ceremonies, went underground to survive what the Canadian Supreme Court has now recognized as attempted cultural genocide.

For Indigenous people in modern Canada, to smudge openly can be a hugely significant act. And yet, it is only one small way that Elders-in-residence at NorQuest College inspire and encourage Aboriginal students. Through smudging, Elders offer Indigenous students a connection to their community and spirituality, showing them that they don’t have to lose their culture to succeed in the mainstream.

“We have our own teachings,” says Delores Cardinal, a Cree Elder from Goodfish Lake, hired by NorQuest College through funding from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF). And, she says, accepting smudging is one way academia has begun to make space for those teachings.

Cardinal started the position this spring and joins Elder Tony Arcand at the Edmonton Downtown campus, while Elder Mary Moonias serves the Wetaskiwin campus.

In addition to her weekly in-residence day at NorQuest, Cardinal spends two days a week at Native Counselling Services, and stays involved with University of Alberta, where her husband teaches. She also participates in ceremonies big and small that take her to hospitals, homes and gatherings both on and off-Reserve. Elder work requires time harvesting and preparing medicines and, keeping to a schedule dictated not by clocks and calendars, but by the land and her seasons.

Cardinal finds her schedule at NorQuest is always full; and while Elder work there starts with one-on-one counseling, it’s not just Aboriginal students who seek her out. She’s pleased to share her Cree culture with students from around the world. With 60 per cent of NorQuest’s students born outside Canada, there is a great demand for her knowledge. The smudge is an invitingly simple point of introduction. “I speak Cree,” says Cardinal, “but, to be fair, in public I pray in English. My Grandmother raised me to respect others by using the main language so they can understand.”

Jonathan Robb, NorQuest Director of Strategic Integration and Stakeholder Relations, enthuses about how much the Elders help bridge cultural gaps in a mutually beneficial way. They are ambassadors, and they help staff work in ways that honour Canada’s difficult history, and move on. “We can’t stay stuck there,” says Cardinal.

Robb agrees, saying: “Elders are change agents. People listen, lean in and listen to the Elders, and that is when the change happens. I’m really excited about that. It’s an awakening.”

As the smoke wafts upward, the Elder intones a prayer on behalf of the assembled group. Her words rise with the smoke, up into the ceiling tiles and ductwork of NorQuest College. And these words are in English, and the faces of the listeners are all the colours of the human rainbow and it is good.