An integral part of the Indigenous Social Work (INSW) program at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) is attending and participating meaningfully at the culture camp in one of their semesters. The seven-day culture camp is offered at the FNUniv Traditional Campus, located just outside Prince Albert, Sask.
In previous years, Karen Bird, who is in her second year of the INSW program, would be allowed to bring a relative along to the camp for support. That rule changed this year, so her sister could not join her. This worried Bird.
“I was really dreading it,” she says.
Bird decided to make the trip from Regina to Prince Albert alone and says that she had a lot of nervous feelings the closer she got to the camp, wondering to herself what would happen.
“It was the anniversary of my mom’s passing, so, it was really, really, hard coming in at first.”
However, as soon as she got to the camp, things changed for Bird when she saw classmates she was friends with. She says she spent the first night without sleep because she was so caught up listening to all the stories that were being shared by the other participants.
“Getting their support, and hearing their laughter?” she says, and smiles.
“It’s medicine. Laughter really is good medicine.”
The INSW culture camp has a rich history, going back just as long as the INSW Program has been around – for 50 years.
In previous years, the culture camp was ten days long, and they were put into smaller groups, as opposed to this year. This year, the INSW Program held two, seven-day culture camps back-to-back, with around 50 to 60 students in each co-hort at a time. The cook this year was injured unfortunately, so when food was needed? The students stepped up and helped to feed everyone. There was a steady bannock-making cooking line, with elders standing by, gently instructing, and helping the students with each step.
Other students stood next to them, helping to cook. One student was stirring a big pot of soup on a stove inside a barn-like structure where everyone gathers, for meals, or classes like making their own medicine pouches. Fresh fruit, water, juice, and granola bars are all set out on a table for students to snack on. Outside, there are four tipis in a semi-circle.
Everyone brings their tents or small RVs to camp, and there are porta-potties on-site.
Sharon Acoose, FNUniv professor, and volunteer at the culture camp, says in the past, this is not how the INSW camp used to be run. Many of the places where the cultural camp was held had no power, or running water, so they lived off the land, and drank from a nearby spring, but over time that changed.
“Students cooked on an open fire even in the rain,” says Acoose.
“It has always been a great cultural camp.”
Challenging lessons are brought to the forefront for participating students, many of whom have their own insights, and lived experiences that they bring along with them. Each student gets to share their perspective in a safe space and discuss these things at length in order to learn from one another.
One of the students attending is Chantel Belanger. Belanger is a 4th year INSW student from the Ahtahkakoop First Nation. This is the second INSW culture camp she has attended. She says she prefers it when the co-horts are much smaller, because some of the issues the students are facing – cannot be fully addressed in a large group of 50 students.
But she says at the end of the day: the camp works.
“When you first come here, you don’t really want to be here, or be a part of this, because it’s scary. It’s new, right? “
“But you find yourself here, and you’re transformed when you leave.”
Belanger is funny, articulate, and open with her life, and some of the struggles that she has had to overcome. Many in the INSW program know her story too, she says, and when asked if she gets the attention and the help that she deserves? She laughs, and says, “Yes, too much!”
Belanger started university in 2000, when she tried to obtain an education degree. But she dropped out because of her addiction issues, she says. Belanger says she used to be an IV drug user, an alcoholic, and has spent some time living on the streets.
“I was always an alcoholic or an addict, my whole life and so, I never finished,” she says.
She credits the INSW professors for helping her get back on track during that difficult time in her life.
“You can be going straight and narrow, and then things fall apart, but then you can always get back up,” she says.
“You do not need to stay in that (low) level.”
Belanger says that professor Acoose is the one that encouraged her to come back and finish her education – and the camp. She told her that it does not matter what you do after – just as long as you finish.
“I was on the streets for quite a while between 2018, and now,” Belanger says.
“And with the grace of God, and Sharon, encouraging me to get here; I’m here to finish.”
Another reason for Belanger to finish her education?
“I’m doing it to prove to myself, and to others, who believed I’d never finish.”
“It’s like ‘Boo-yah,’” she says and laughs.
Belanger believes her experiences will make her a good social worker, when having to deal with complex issues, because she has been there herself. She says she feels this culture camp is meant for people like her. The teachings are earned, and done in a safe space, and with their culture –this is something that makes Belanger feel seen and heard.
“I feel like I’m the type of person that they’re going to help in the future,” she says. “I feel not less than. I feel like, they are all here for people like me, you know?”
The culture camp runs twice in July for registered INSW students. For more information, please visit: https://www.fnuniv.ca/academic/undergraduate-programs/indigenous-social-work/
The INSW program is proud to announce the celebration of their 50th Anniversary being held at the Saskatoon Inn & Conference Centre on September 22, 2023.
This gathering will include a keynote speaker. faculty, alumni, and students, and an alumni panel to highlight five decades of INSW program graduates and accomplishments.
This will be followed by a dinner and gala that will honour the most esteemed INSW alumni and faculty accomplishments.
For tickets and information, please visit: