By Daniel Betts
Local valley resident, Penny Courtoreille spent three days on the Kumcheon Indian Reservation, located near Spences Bridge, B.C., on the left bank of the Thompson River at the mouth of the Nicola River. Band elders were teaching Courtoreille how to make a “silver willow cape,” the traditional regalia of the Cook’s Ferry Indian Band worn at special ceremonies. “I wanted people to know where I was from, what nation I was from,” explained Courtoreille. She wanted to wear something that would proudly symbolize her nation while receiving a great and well-deserved honour.
On June 1, local valley resident, Sherry Nicholas, a member of the Acadia First Nation, proudly stood next to Courtoreille during a graduation ceremony held in Cranbrook, B.C., at the College of the Rockies (COTR). Both women hold the honour of being the first to graduate from the Aboriginal Education Support Workers (AESW) program. Not only did they complete the two-year program, they both earned impressive scholastic distinctions. Nicholas earned her place on COTR’s Scholar’s List while Courtoreille earned her place on COTR’s Honour’s List, both highly prestigious and well earned awards. Courtoreille’s achievement is even more significant when taking into consideration her having dyslexia. Nicholas reached her achievement while working full time and dealing with a slow dial-up Internet connection.
The AESW diploma is designed to prepare students with the knowledge and skills to better support Aboriginal students, their families and school communities in a culturally appropriate and respectful manner. The AESW program includes 19 academic, cultural and applied courses, and two practicum experiences. Students receiving an AESW diploma may gain employment within a public school or choose to continue on to a Bachelor program in education, arts, general studies or social work. Nicholas is already working at Valemount Secondary School (VSS) as the Aboriginal support worker. Courtoreille explained while the course was more geared toward school settings, the skills learned could also be applied to a community liaison person to assist in the health field or even the RCMP. Nicholas and Courtoreille began their journey in 2008, when they started taking courses online through COTR, which was before the program formally existed.
Courtoreille said the college had to scramble ahead of their courses in order to develop the program, which has now gained much interest. “It took many changes over the course of four and half years,” explained Nicholas. “They developed the program as we went along.”
At least two courses were taken outside of COTR; a Cree language course through the University of Regina and an indigenous literature course from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.. An extremely difficult linguistics course, which is no longer required in the AESW diploma program, was also undertaken. The women hired local language expert, Silvio Gislimberti, to tutor them on the course, but while the course was extremely difficult, it helped them both to excel in the Cree language course they were required to take.
According to Nicholas and Courtoreille, 30 per cent of the children in our valley have an aboriginal background, from a variety of nations, including Metis, Cree and Carrier. Courtoreille, who recently taught “Roots of Empathy” at McBride Centennial Elementary School (MCES), has been working with valley schools since she started the program. She was able to complete the practicum portion of her studies at MCES and VSS. “My family is First Nations. I love kids and families. My focus is to help aboriginal families and children, to come along side and help them through,” said Courtoreille.