By Valerie Gow, Indigenous Intervention Centre Coordinator, Edmonton Institution for Women
“Education is the new Buffalo."
This statement by guest speaker Dr. Pat Makokis, during an outreach event at the Edmonton Institution for Women (EIFW), struck a chord with Dr. Tracy Bear. The idea that education can provide First Nation and Métis people with food, clothing, and shelter as the buffalo once did was inspiring. So were the inmate testimonials she heard at the 2017 event.
Following the event, Dr. Bear, Associate Professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Edmonton, approached Valerie Gow, Indigenous Intervention Centre (IIIC) Coordinator to suggest a partnership and offer university courses to offenders at EIFW. They agreed there should be a commitment of 80 percent Indigenous enrolment for any courses offered through the institution.
In 2018, the first academic course offered by Dr. Bear and the Native Studies Faculty was a non-credit, Humanities 101–Contemporary Indigenous Art course. A preparatory course followed, which helped Indigenous women offenders focus on such things as boosting study skills, note taking, and writing a paper. From January to April 2019, up to 10 seats were offered to the women offenders to attend the U of A campus through escorted temporary absence (ETA) or unescorted temporary absence. Any unused seats were offered to offenders from the Buffalo Sage Wellness House, a Section 81 facility in Edmonton.
In addition to the in-person classes, a weekly study group was offered at EIFW and included women who were not attending the on-campus course. As part of this program, some women offenders were offered opportunities to speak about their experiences at the Think Indigenous International Education Conference. The women attended this and other U of A events through ETAs.
In the summer of 2018, the Native Studies faculty applied for funding and attended training in order to establish and implement a new program, the Walls to Bridges (W2B) University. EIFW's Indigenous women offenders and Elder Bonny Spencer were included in discussions about curriculum development for the W2B University. Following many discussions and extensive planning with the IIC Coordinator, EIFW Warden Rob Campney, and the U of A Faculty of Native Studies, W2B began at EIFW in September 2019.
The first W2B University credit course offered was Native Studies 280 – Indigenous Resilience. W2B University was attended by 15 'inside' (incarcerated) and 15 'outside' students, EIFW students and Elder Bonny Spencer, who provides cultural consultation and ceremony. The 30 students meet once a week at EIFW to participate in the course. The instructors also offered time during the week to provide individual assistance to the students at EIFW.
In January 2020, a Women and Gender Studies (WGS) 280 – Indigenous Women's Autobiography and Life Writing credit course was also offered. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U of A faculty were not permitted to attend EIFW in person, so they adapted their program and delivered it via radio broadcast .
One student in the W2B University, Elaine (Rosie) Cece, an inmate at EIFW was selected by U of A's Department of Women's and Gender Studies to receive the department's Missing Indigenous Women Award. The annual award reflects the department's goal to encourage students to ask big questions about the way that gender impacts how we think, how we live, and how we understand ourselves and others.
The Missing Indigenous Women award recognizes Rosie's interest in the subject matter, diligence in the face of adversity, and her contributions to enriching the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at the U of A.
The positive impacts of taking courses at the W2B University are demonstrating to women offender students that education is the new buffalo.