Dal launches Elders in Residence program

- December 11, 2015

Left-to-right: Diana Hirtle, Muriel Rosevere, Billy Lewis, Geri Musqua-LeBlanc, Doug Knockwood and Deb Eisan. (Provided photo)
Left-to-right: Diana Hirtle, Muriel Rosevere, Billy Lewis, Geri Musqua-LeBlanc, Doug Knockwood and Deb Eisan. (Provided photo)

Few things are more comforting than talking to a grandparent or an older family member who listens without judgement and shares the wisdom gained throughout their life.

That’s the sort of experience that Dalhousie’s new Elders in Residence program hopes to provide to Dal students. Linked with the university’s new Indigenous Studies minor that launched this fall, the Elders in Residence program will provide any and all Dal students with access to First Nations elders for guidance, counsel, support — whatever they require.

Geri Musqua-LeBlanc, coordinator of the new program, says the interactions should provide great value to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

“I think [the students] are going to benefit from the wisdom of an elder, from the wisdom and the calmness," she says. It’s important to encourage students, she says, because “they are our hope.”

In addition to coordinating the Elders in Residence program, Musqua-LeBlanc herself is one of the five elders taking part in the program at its launch. A member of the Nakawe Nation (Keeseekoose First Nation) and a member of the Bear Clan in Saskatchewan, her traditional name, “Miskwe Ginew ikwe,” means “Red Eagle Woman.” Retired after more than 30 years in the public service, she is also a residential school survivor and a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work in Employment Equity.

Commitment to students

Musqua-LeBlanc is not alone in her enthusiasm to help students: all of the five elders in the program have extensive resumés of community involvement and all are eager to connect and support students on campus.

Debbie Eisan, another of the program’s elders, is also retired, after having served in the Canadian military for 36 years. She is an Ojibway Anishinabee kwe from Batchewana First Nation, and was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. She feels passionately about the new Elders in Residence program and the positive opportunities it brings.

"Any opportunity to have a teachable moment, we will take,” she says. “We are so much more than just dancing and drumming.”

Eisan, who like Musqua-LeBlanc is a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medalist, received the National Aboriginal Women in Leadership Foundation Award of Distinction in 2004. A strong believer in the importance of education, she is presently the community planner at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax.  

Another of the elders, Billy Lewis, is Mi’kmaq. He is originally from Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia but has lived off-reserve most of his life. (He presently resides in Dartmouth.) A community activist for over 40 years, he has taken part in many Indigenous organizations, and is particularly focused on urban indigenous concerns, accountability and consensus building.

On the coming together of elders from different parts of the country, Lewis says it’s “a relief that we have a body to connect across nations to deal with what we all have in common: to help our students.”

Support and guidance

Alongside Musqua-LeBlanc, Eisan and Lewis, two additional elders will be taking part in the program at its launch. Doug Knockwood is a respected elder from Sipekne’katik First Nation, formerly known as Indian Brook, outside of Shubenacadie, N.S. A recipient of the Grand Chief Donald Marshall Senior Memorial Elder Award, he has worn many hats through his life including as a member of the Canadian Armed Special Forces, a chef, a counsellor and a teacher for the promotion of Aboriginal culture.

The fifth elder is Muriel Rosevere, who is Metis/Anishinabee kwe, originally from Ontario. Rosevere is a member of the Raging Grannies and volunteers to perform in musical plays in senior residences around the city. She is an active member of the Senior and Elders Program at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre.

All of the elders taking part in the program have committed to being available to students for advising and support as needed. Their office is located in the McCain Building (room 3037). Interested students can contact the program at elders@dal.ca or at 902-494-6803 (leave a message). Musqua-LeBlanc also has office hours Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30-1:30 in the program office.

One particular service the elders can provide is smudging ceremonies, which involve the burning of the four sacred medicines (sage, tobacco, cedar and sweetgrass) to cleanse one's mind, body and spirit. Requests for smudging have been increasing on campus, and keeping Musqua-LeBlanc busy: most recently she smudged a room for 25 Health Sciences students and described the experience as extremely positive. Students interested in smudging can contact the Elders in Residence program and then book a room at the Multifaith Centre once they have confirmed the availability of an elder.

All students are welcomed, as well, at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre.


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