Queen Elizabeth Scholar Vanessa Tait attends Universities Canada Homecoming 2016 in Ottawa

Graduate Studies

On October 25th, Universities Canada hosted a signature event, "Homecoming 2016", to demonstrate the amazing students attending Canadian universities.  Four Queen Elizabeth Scholars, including the University of Winnipeg's Vanessa Tait, had the opportunity to network with researchers, university presidents, and members of parliament in Ottawa. Vanessa is a graduate student in the Master's in Development: Indigenous Development program. The Faculty of Graduate Studies recently caught up with Vanessa to hear about her experience and what she shared with those taking part in "Homecoming 2016."

Vanessa Tait and Dr. TrimbeeYou participated in a roundtable discussion on “Higher Education and Building a Better Canada”.  Can you speak about what issues were discussed and what you focused on contributing to the discussion? What was your experience in the individual video interviews portion of the itinerary?

The roundtable discussion included 10-15 students and young innovators that had been selected to participate in this event.  The roundtable was led by Léo Charbonneau, editor of University Affairs magazine. We discussed the important and emerging issues affecting higher education today, especially issues surrounding the student experience and meeting Canada’s needs. We were also asked to consider how best to involve students in a far-reaching discussion about Canada’s next 50 years and the role of higher education in helping to build a more innovative, inclusive and prosperous Canada for 2067.  This discussion was aimed at assisting Universities Canada with how to best focus their event, Converge 2017, which will be held on February 6-7, 2017.  This event will bring together 150 students to participate in Ottawa and will also be live streamed for universities around Canada to participate online.

There was a lot of discussion around the table with the students.  I was the only visibly First Nations student, which made it a bit awkward, but my voice was needed at this roundtable.  There was no mention of the TRC’s Calls to Action, no mention of anything Indigenous, and very little discussion about communities that have been affected by research, development and the historic inequalities and injustices done [against Indigenous peoples].  Students talked about how their professors were unfair in marking them or didn’t acknowledge the health issues of students, high rates of tuition, and the lack of student support or student voices within the university environment.  Very basic stuff, but for them it may have been fundamentally important.  Yet still no echoes of anything Indigenous. So I raised my hand and began to list off some things that needed to be considered, especially for Indigenous people in Canada.  Not sure if I will be quoted in the magazine, but at least I put some voice to our Indigenous concerns and issues.

Next, I had an individual interview.  First, I got the same questions as everyone else, including: why did you decide to take part in QES and why was it important for you to do it? My answer, if I can remember correctly was: the spirit and intent of the QE II scholarship was what attracted me to it.  The person chosen for this scholarship possesses leadership, engages with community, and acts as a visiting scholar to a commonwealth country.  I did my field placement in Aotearoa (New Zealand) with the Wakaito-Tainui College for Research and Development.  I am a First Nation student, and like all students in university have very limited funding to travel to the other side of the world.  I was not funded by my band and was paying my own education.  My family is not wealthy, but assisted in fundraising efforts to help with my travel and living costs as well.  The scholarship assisted with my opportunity to travel to Aotearoa and was definitely a dream come true for me. 

In my answer, I was honest and stated that I wasn’t too keen on the title, “Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship”, but you would understand if you knew the colonial history and the continued colonization and assimilative relationship that the British have with Indigenous people in Canada. 

I was also asked: What are two pieces of advice you would give to other Canadian QEScholars or someone considering the QES program? The advice I would give is to take this opportunity to travel and learn from your experience.  Knowledge exchange and cross-cultural learning has changed my life and I discovered so much in my experience in Aotearoa.  To be embraced by another Indigenous culture, to learn and grow as a person will have a lasting impact on you.  Be respectful, tell your own story of your family and community and do not feel you are better than anyone.  With every person and experience you have an opportunity to grow.

The awkward part of my interview was when they asked me some additional questions, which were described as Indigenous-focused questions. The first thing they ask me was “what was the reason you chose to enter university or post-secondary,” or somewhere along those lines.  I do not know why this was the Indigenous-focused one, but I answered in the best possible way I could. I indicated that the reason why I had entered post-secondary was the same reason that all students may decide to further their education.  Although, the area of study I chose was due to a need I had identified in my family and community.  My parents both started their own businesses when I was a teenager and noticed there was a lack of mainstream business capacity and skills, such as accounting and finance.  Both their businesses, Laundromat and Construction Company, were needed in the community and their skill level in that area was not where they lacked, rather they needed business skills.  So that was my reasoning in choosing my educational path in business and community development.

 Vanessa's dress made by Indigenous designer Roxanne ShuttleworthTell us a bit about the evening reception.  What was your experience? Were there any moments that stood out to you?

At the evening reception we were encouraged to network and speak about our work and research. The guests included university presidents, MPs, senior federal officials, and business and civil society leaders. I must have read the agenda wrong, because I walked in with a beautiful, homemade, custom-ordered cocktail gown made by an Aboriginal designer, Roxanne Shuttleworth. It is important to support local artists and designers.  I thought we were going to a Gala dinner.  However, the reception was standing room with a full house.  Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served.  It was an amazing evening. I met a few MPs, Presidents of Universities and educators. Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett was in attendance, as well, and we had a little chat and took a few photos.  The University of Winnipeg’s President Annette Trimbee is an amazing network partner. She introduced me to so many people at the reception and got the conversation going about Indigenous students’ access to education and how institutions play a role in providing space for Indigenous content and education to be shared in the classroom and community.

This was a wonderful opportunity and in the future it would be amazing if there were more Indigenous Canadian students participating.

Top Photo: University of Winnipeg President Annette Trimbee, Universities Canada President Paul Davidson and QE Scholar Vanessa Tait, Photo Credit: @QEScholars, Twitter
Bottom Photo: Dress designed by Roxanne Shuttleworth, Photo Credit: @RoxShuttleworth, Twitter

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