National Indigenous Peoples Day - An Actua Instructor’s Perspective

June 21, 2017

Today is National Indigenous People’s Day, and this year, more than ever, we reflect on our work and how we are doing as an organization truly committed to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on education for Indigenous youth. As an organization, Actua is committed to having Indigenous voices and representation at every level - from our Board, to our staff, to our delivery instructors. Each year our amazing network of 36 members at universities and colleges across Canada hire 1,000 undergraduate students in STEM as instructors, with growing numbers of Indigenous students among them. These Indigenous students play a profound role in shaping the experiences of the 35,000 Indigenous students we engage each year across every province and territory.

This year, I asked Isaiah Mckeown-Philip, one of Actua’s Outreach Team instructors to share some of his thoughts on his role as an instructor, and what it means to him to apply our model of STEM education for Indigenous youth, and specifically Inuit youth in Nunavut. Isaiah is an Inuk, born in Iqaluit. He met Actua as a student in the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, a program dedicated to providing Inuit youth with unique cultural and academic experiences. He has worked with us over the past two years delivering STEM education outreach programming to Inuit youth across Nunavut. Here is what Isaiah had to say.

One of the first things that attracted me to Actua was my interest in science. As a child, I was heavily influenced by the Discovery Channel. My elementary school friends nicknamed me, “The Discovery Kid." I was glued to that channel. I loved science. In high school, I took biology and chemistry and thoroughly enjoyed those courses. This fall, I will be going to Algonquin College for an electrical engineering program.

Through the Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, I learned a lot about how to engage with the communities. So I felt that Actua was a great fit to help me do even more in the communities, by taking on a role as an instructor in STEM. There is a relatively small proportion of Inuit who have careers or backgrounds in STEM in the territory. It is important to have Inuit with the capacity to work in STEM fields rather than rely always on transient people, which can create instability and therefore lower the overall quality of the work done in those fields. We need to build these skillsets within our own community, and working directly with youth is an all too important start in the process. I was excited to be a part of that.

Last year, I travelled to the Qikiqtani (Baffin) communities of Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, and Iqaluit. This was my first time being in other Nunavut communities outside of my hometown of Iqaluit. It was such an amazing and grounding experience. Every week I would enter a community and see a bunch of shy, but very eager kids. At first they were timid, but you could tell they were bursting with curiosity and wanted to try out new things and learn.

Actua delivers a very unique approach to science. Kids learn science in school and it works for some and it does not work for others. Unfortunately for those others, they have an interest in science, but don’t even know it. They perceive it as what they learned in school. As a result, they miss out on what it really is all about and how much it is active, both within their community and out on the land. Those kids get left behind, or really, they leave science behind. Actua’s programs engage that group, and some more. When youth have lots of hands-on opportunities to design and build and they have that face to face time with instructors who are great role models, they fall in love with science! I saw that a lot of them learned things about themselves that they didn’t know. A lot of them didn’t think they could do science, or didn’t even imagine that they would like science, but then they would try the activities and discover that they loved it - and that they could do it. Most importantly, they can do it all at home!

Unfortunately, many youth up north today don’t see the science around them. When they think of science they think of lab coats and petri dishes. In Nunavut there exists a principle that we call Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ. This represents the learned experience and knowledge of the land that Inuit have gained over time. Inuit are very innovative. We have survived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Take igloos for example. When you think about it, cold is the enemy and yet we make a shelter out of the cold stuff (ice and snow). Who would have thought of that? An Elder taught myself and a group how to make one and I am grateful to have gained that knowledge.

Another innovation is the qamutik, those big sleds made of wood, which teem with science. The skis have to be fixed at a certain angle. Joints have to be tied in a certain way using ropes instead of nails to make sure that there is enough flexibility for the rough terrain. The qamutiks (or qamutiit) we see in people’s driveways or backyards are all handmade, through experience-gained knowledge. Clothing is another huge innovation. Animal skins were acquired, handled, and sewn together with specific designs, very intricately, to keep warm.

This knowledge is valued, and it is extremely important for youth to know that IQ perspectives are a legitimate science that isn’t found in textbooks. When Actua works with communities, and invites Elders and even other Inuit scientists into the camp programs, youth see that the Inuit perspectives, or the IQ, is valued and connected to STEM.

It’s also really important for youth to see other Inuit, or people close to them doing science. It helps them believe they can do it themselves as well. We see so many other scientists, transient scientists, coming to Nunavut, and it’s important for kids to see Inuit scientists to break down that perception barrier that science is not for them.

I’m excited for another year of working with Actua and I look forward to the opportunity to be a part of the change that is happening as a result of their programs. I’m happy to be a part of a new movement and approach in education, one that sees a positive way forward for all youth.