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Jessica Ford discusses their Indigenous Governance practicum defense

Graduate Studies


A MapRecently, the Faculty of Graduate Studies talked with Master of Arts in Indigenous Governance graduate Student, Jessica Ford, who defended their practicum “The Yiriman Project: Land Based Healing as a Protective Factor in the Prevention of Indigenous Youth Suicide".

Can you tell us about yourself, what interested you in the Master of Arts in Indigenous Governance program, and why you chose to work on a practicum instead of a thesis?

My passion is working with youth and supporting them to step into their fullest potential. Before beginning the Master of Arts in Indigenous Governance program (MAIG), I had been working with Indigenous youth in the Northern Territory of Australia. During this time, I realized that the rates of Indigenous youth suicide are five to eight times higher than non-Indigenous youth in Australia. The Northern Territory of Australia has a population of approximately 228,000 people, with 25% of the population being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The majority of these folks live in remote communities where access to education, health care, employment and youth programming is limited.  

It became clear that these social, political and economic risk factors directly impacted youth dying by suicide in these communities. In Australia, every youth I have worked with has been affected by suicide in some form. Either through individuals in their family, friend groups or community.  These social, political and economic conditions are an outcome of colonialism and the ongoing racism and power imbalance imposed by Western systems of governance.

I chose to study the MAIG program as I hoped it would inform my understanding of how colonial systems are continuing to perpetuate systems of dominance, racism and oppression. As a non-Indigenous person, I had the opportunity to begin learning different forms of Indigenous governance systems as well as the process of unlearning and relearning through decolonizing and indigenizing methodologies.  

I chose the practicum stream, as I learn best through experiential, embodied learning. Understanding Indigenous governance through research and theory did not provide me with the comprehension and knowledge I gained from the emotional reactions and responses I felt during my time with the Yiriman Project. These emotional responses informed my theoretical understanding of Indigenous governance systems. 

In your practicum, you observed The Yiriman Project, a cultural program based out of Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, in exploring land-based healing as a protective factor in the prevention of Indigenous youth suicide. Can you tell us about the organization and your practicum project? 

As I began my MAIG journey, I started to become interested in research that looked at traditional and cultural knowledge systems as protective factors in the prevention of Indigenous youth suicide.

The Yiriman Project is a non-incorporated Aboriginal organization working under the endorsement of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) in Western Australia. The Yiriman Project was instigated, conceived and developed by the Elders of four of the Kimberley language groups in the region, namely the Nyikina, Mangala, Karkarri and Walmajarri. These four groups share similar language, cultural practices, and geography. The project was established in 2000, with Elders in the region working to engage youth in culturally-connecting activities. 

The objective of the project is to create programming and land-based teachings that provide youth with a sense of cultural connectedness.  The aim is to promote a space of belonging, and self-continuity, understanding where you come from, to have greater direction in where you are going.

I worked on multiple projects and initiatives during the practicum. One of these was the forming of the Bayulu Young Stars. Through community and youth discussion, I was asked to help form a female leadership group. The youth shared their ideas for activities, programming, social enterprise projects, as well as the desire for a youth centre. I would then work with the youth to find the resources to establish a foundation for these projects, and methods to make it a youth-run, sustainable program once I left the community.

As graduate student conducting research with indigenous communities, how did you go about navigating your position as a non-member of the community when working with the organization? 

The practicum stream does not involve primary research. As a non-Indigenous person and without prior relationships to the region or peoples, as well as a time limitation of the practicum (3-months), I would not have felt ethically or morally comfortable to research if this was a requirement. My focus is on relationship building and creating sustainable connections. The practicum stream, as well as the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Scholarship, provided me with the opportunity to build upon my strengths and personal learning styles and, most importantly, form relationships with individuals I would not have had a chance to meet otherwise.

In your practicum presentation, you addressed the issue of how a lack of funding leads to limited resources and time which affects the chances of building stronger cross-cultural understandings and relationships between indigenous and non-ingenious communities. Reflecting on your time with the Yiriman Project, how might one work within these barriers to still provide some level of reciprocity with the work being done?   

I can only speak to my own experiences as each person and project are going to be unique and will have their own set of limitations, barriers, challenges, and  goals.  I was given the approval to network with other youth agencies in Fitzroy Crossing. I spent time learning about those working in the youth sector in the area and proposed ways in which we could work together to form partnerships to support the initiatives that the youth had requested.  I wanted to work in ways that promoted succession planning and sustainability. Since I had a limited amount of time in the region, my focus was on learning about the strengths, passions, interests, and purpose of the youth I was building relationships with and then partnering them with other individuals or organizations that could support in the future planning and delivery of their goals.  

Initially, you established objectives that, as your practicum progressed, were not going to be fulfilled. How were you able to navigate these obstacles in delivering the project? And how were you still able to find moments of success? 

I wanted to learn from the Yiriman Project and their Indigenous governance model because communities are the experts in the response systems, knowledge and understanding of the processes required to counter the social, political, and environmental risk factors created from colonialism.  I was there to observe this model and to offer myself in ways that would support the Yiriman community (this usually manifested as acting as a driver, which included much criticism from the 'old gals' in my ability to drive a 4-wheel drive in the desert). I did not observe the project in how I was drawn to the program, nor was I able to support in reaching the goals that the youth had established. However, this was expected considering the limited time available and the obstacles involved with working alongside a not-for-profit organization. 

I found moments of success in little ways. This looked like creating a safe space for someone to share their sadness or grief; it was by providing emotional support for young entrepreneurs to set up their first workshops.  It was acting as the driver and cook for a 14-day bush medicine workshop that the Yiriman Law Woman participated in, and which also created a platform for them to offer baby blessing ceremonies to children in the community.  It was supporting 'on-country' discussions and meetings by preparing food and note-taking and filming. As mentioned, the women are the experts in what needs to be done to "heal themselves, their family and their community." However, the geographical remoteness of these communities makes it difficult to have a platform for the woman to share their stories with other women and then collaborate in region-wide.  

The Yiriman Project did not have consistent access to vehicles or licensed drivers to help with transporting women to sites and locations where meetings and planning could take place.  Therefore I was happy when I could offer transportation, which aided in the communication between the Law women.  However,  I was also aware of this being a quick fix to the more significant issue of not having project officers employed who could fill this role permanently.

Now that your practicum is finished, what are your plans for the future? Any celebration plans?

I had a lovely visit with my Supervisor Dr. Pelletier and adviser Dr. Shailesh Shukra as well as some beautiful friends from the MAIG and MDP Program.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to deepen my relationships with the Winnipeg community.

I am currently working alongside a youth mental health charity based in Toronto.  My role allows me to work with young people and communities in Northern and Central, Ontario. I am feeling passionate and purposeful in this space! I owe this role to MAIG, thank you for equipping me with the knowledge systems and skillset to be here. Miigwetch MAIG and miigwetch to my dear friend Charlene Moore! I wouldn't be here without you! ❤️

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to chat with us! Good luck in Toronto!

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