Leanne Julian was the 2019 recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s medal at UFV for her commitment to including Indigenous perspectives and empowering Indigenous communities. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Q&A: Sts’ailes medal winner talks about school, success and Indigenous perspectives

Leanne Julian was the Lieutenant Governor medal winner for her work with Indigenous knowledge at UFV

Leanne Julian had a long road to her graduation from UFV on June 4.

The 35-year-old Sts’ailes woman first began post-secondary education in 2004 with Family Childcare certificate, and went back to the University of the Fraser Valley in the mid-2000s, only to drop out after one semester.

Now, Julian has graduated with a Bachelor of General Studies, with a focus in global Indigenous geography and minors in geography; Indigenous studies, Halq’emeylem and Indigenous Maps, Rights, Films, and Land Claims certificates.

She also left university as the 2019 Lieutenant Governor’s medal winner for her work in promoting Indigenous perspectives and empowering Indigenous communities.

RELATED: Award-winning UFV graduate helping to decolonize curriculum

Now that she’s graduated, Julian said she will continue to work as a cultural support worker and Halq’eméylem teacher in the Abbotsford School District, as well as at St. Mary’s Elementary in Chilliwack. She’s raising a blended family of eight with her fiancé at their home in the Tzeachten First Nation, and says she’s now replaced studying with working out.

The Agassiz Harrison Observer sat down with Julian to talk about her time at UFV, the challenges she faced, the successes she found and her advice for other Indigenous students as they start their post-secondary education.

What made you want to go back to university? I know you had tried a couple times to go back to school, but what made this time the one that stuck?

It’s kind of embarrassing really.

When I first went to university, I ended up having to drop out. And the way it worked back then was that aboriginal students had to apply for a student loan, and when you successfully completed your program, then they would pay back your loan.

After I ended up dropping out of school, I moved. And my mom moved. So the ways that Revenue Services B.C. would normally get ahold of you, they couldn’t get ahold of me.

The post secondary advisor at the time told me that she had paid back my loan. Because, leading up to me going to school the last semester at UFV, I told her I didn’t think I could do it, because I had a new baby. I was just like, ‘I don’t have reliable childcare.’

I wanted to go back to CDI College, and she was like ‘No, you have to go to UFV. We won’t help you go to CDI.’ And I was like, ‘Well I can’t.’ And she was like, ‘Well just try and if you can’t, don’t worry about it, I’ll pay back your loan anyways.’

RELATED: Lack of funding, culture on campus biggest barriers for Indigenous students: report

When I finished that semester — well, not finished, quit — she said was going to pay back my loan, so I never thought anything of it again. Until a couple years later, when I did my income tax return, they kept it because I owed money to student loans.

So I called the band office and spoke to the post secondary advisor, and she told me the only way they could pay it back is if I go and finish my program. So I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it won’t take me very long to finish a diploma.’

And then, I sort of got to that spot where I could have had a diploma, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to be happy with a diploma. I want to do more.’ So I kept going for my bachelors.

Now here we are.

Through your time in school, what was the most challenging thing you had to contend with?

Balancing life. Academia and culture, and parenting. And self-discipline. Overall, it was self discipline.

I know that everybody else sees it, the commitment and the dedication that it took for me to to miss hockey games and soccer games. To be sitting there on the sidelines reading while I should have been watching my kids play. Going to birthday parties and family dinners and sitting in the quietest room possible to read.

But it still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t reading enough. I wasn’t putting enough focus into it.

When I was in high school, I used to write things down on cue cards and practice and read through it. I never did any of that in university. I have several boxes though of cue cards that I bought at the beginning of the semester, with the intent that I’m going to write on these cue cards and I’m going to study. I never did it.

If I had been able to put that time in, and do those cue cards, and do more of the practice tests and things like that that are available online, I probably would have got some pretty kick ass grades.

And on the flip side of that, we talked about the most challenging thing, now what was the most rewarding thing about being in school?

I think I was able to figure out that I didn’t have to choose what I wanted to do with my life. That I was sort of already doing with my life what my grandparents and my parents would have wanted.

I was going into fourth year still not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And then I took PORT 398 [a portfolio course] with Claire Hay, and we had to find artifacts for the different learning outcomes that we had. And it just became very clear to me that everything I did, even in my criminal law class, I tied it to aboriginal knowledge and history.

There was one course that I took that I nearly failed, because the history prof didn’t like that I spoke about residential schools in a bad way. She outright told me that this history book says that there were only good relationships between the French and the Iroquois. There was never anything bad, and that the residential schools were appreciated. And this was in 2014, after the apology had happened by Harper and everything.

RELATED: Totem pole raised at UBC honours First Nations victimized by residential schools

But anyways, I would put my Indigenous knowledge and incorporate my cultural practices into everything that I was doing. I was like, this is just what I do.

I’ve had jobs before where I’ve used language to help with doing strategic planning and community comprehensive plans and things like that. I was working as an admin assistant, but I was still putting that extra little bit of Indigenous knowledge and practice into policies, and into the community.

And then when I was going to school, it was just there. Every class that I took, I found a way to incorporate it or compare.

Why is that so important for you to do, in your life and in school?

It wasn’t. It didn’t feel like it was. It just, was.

My grandfather was the longest running chief of Sts’ailes, and the first-ever elected chief of Sts’ailes. And my grandmother was the band manager. They graduated from residential school, and they were very devout Catholics. My grandma and grandpa were, I’ve been told, the driving forces behind the school in Sts’ailes becoming what it is today. They laid the groundwork.

My grandparents also ran an aboriginal youth detention centre for a little while, before my grandma retired. What they did there was … they would take aboriginal youth, or even kids that were going foster home to foster home and getting into trouble, and they put them in this group home. Rather than sending them to juvie, they brought them in for sweats, they practiced traditional prayer and meditation. Sto:lo-type practices to help them.

Everything my grandparents worked for was to include our culture into the healing journey of our people. There are a lot of people that are lost and hurt and dealing with trauma. A lot of it is the repercussions of residential schools and the ’60s Scoop. Kids are being parented by people that were parented by the people that used to beat them.

RELATED: Sixties Scoop survivors welcomed home by B.C. Indigenous community

Two generations before me, they didn’t get raised by their parents. They got raised by the staff at the residential schools. They didn’t know how to be parents, they forgot how to be parents. And then how do they parent their kids?

There’s lots of healing that needs to be done, and things that work for some people don’t work for everybody. A lot of the ways that are common, like going to the doctor or going to see a therapist or going to AA, don’t always work for aboriginal people. For people in general I guess, it doesn’t have to just be aboriginal people.

When you’re learning in an Indigenous community, when you learn to do anything new, anything cultural, they tell you to do it with a good heart and a good mind. When you’re cooking, when you’re sweeping the floor even, you have to have a good heart and a good mind. And these are things that we’re taught, and then it’s like, okay what can you do without a good heart and a good mind? Nothing really.

So, in a way, we’re teaching ourselves to be more positive. To be more caring and generous, and sharing, and loving. And that’s why it’s important.

For my kids, I get crabby at them. And then when they get crabby, I’m like ‘Oh man. Maybe I shouldn’t talk to them like that.’

I just want there to be better for all of our children. It took a lot of years for us to get where we are, and we have to keep going. You can’t understand Indigenous knowledge if nobody’s going to share it with you. I can’t expect my kids to understand Indigenous knowledge if I’m not going to share it with them.

For Indigenous students who are going through post secondary, what would be your advice for them?

I think one of the main reasons I failed the first time around is because I didn’t try to speak to anybody at the university about my challenges, my personal challenges. The fact that this time around I was able to reach out and speak to people, professors, helped a lot.

Like this thing with Cherie, the first paragraph of the article.

[In “Award-winning UFV graduate helping to decolonize curriculum,” Julian explains that she was part of a planning course that looked at ways to promote Mt. Lehman to the broader community. In that first class, no one mentioned the Matsqui First Nation, which Julian could see from their meeting location.]

I was deeply conflicted. Leaving that day, and in the next class I debated dropping out of that course, because I didn’t want to work on a project that wasn’t going to respect my dad’s community. But Cherie was more than understanding, she was so open and excited to include the Indigenous aspect of it.

There was a similar situation with Claire, in that PORT class. She lined up four pictures on the wall, and the face of the picture was up against the wall, we had to flip them over. And as a class, we had to put them in order of privilege.

It was sort of like a blow to the stomach. There was a picture of an aboriginal man, elderly aboriginal artist, and they put him quite high on the privilege list. And the other Indigenous lady in the class with me, actually she’s from Sts’ailes as well, and we kind of just stood back and watched and let them defend why they did what they did. And then, there was four of us that stayed sort of towards the back. Then Claire got us four to speak up and say what we actually thought.

I said, ‘That man, the age that he is right now, he probably doesn’t know his language. He probably went to residential school. He was probably taken out of his home. And he might be an artist because he doesn’t know how to read and write. And that’s the only way he can express himself.’ And they all were like, ‘Woah.’

After that, I went and spoke with her.

Indigenous students need to understand that professors now are way more open minded and in favour of reconciliation efforts than most Indigenous people give them credit for, I think. I think Claire and Cherie are really — I don’t really know how to say it. They tackle that head on. They really embrace Indigenizing their curriculum, and they really encourage others to as well.


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