Empowerment through Education: How an Indigenous Youth is advocating through education to empower her community
Robyn Chow, a proud member of the Red River Métis Nation in Manitoba, knows the value of representation and sharing Indigenous history and culture with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. As a member of the Kiskentamowin Advisory Council, which operates under the Indigenous Inclusion Directorate, Robyn and other members of the Indigenous community advise the Government of Manitoba on Indigenous education in the public school system.
As the postsecondary representative on the Kiskentamowin Advisory Council, Robyn works with government ministers and professionals within the Department of Education to consult on ideas the department has for Indigenous programming to advance the inclusion of Indigenous leaders and educators in public schools and provide greater supports to Indigenous students.
“We provide the government with a pathway to achieving goals regarding the percentage of educators who are Indigenous across the province, how to better approach accreditation of students from Indigenous colleges, and how best to approach Indigenous youth programs and scholarships. Basically, all ideas surrounding how we can improve our education system to better support Indigenous students and educate people about Indigenous history and culture.”
Robyn believes it is important to have Indigenous representation within the community of educators, as this gives Indigenous students a mirror through which they can see themselves in the profession and hopefully increase the number who pursue careers in education.
“My mom is Indigenous, but our family circumstances meant we weren’t always connected to our heritage. So, I didn’t really have a strong understanding of that cultural background, who I was and where I came from regarding my Indigenous roots, until I was in high school. There was a program called the Echo Program that highlights Indigenous students and gives them a space to feel safe and to lean on Indigenous educators. It was really comforting knowing that there were people there who were like me. The presence of Indigenous educators is extremely important for students who might feel lost or don’t feel like they have a place in the world or lack encouragement from other teachers.”
For Robyn, the inclusion of Indigenous voices, along with an accurate telling of Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples, is paramount to engaging people to be a part of the solution to righting the wrongs of Canada’s colonial past. When people have access to information they can develop a more fulsome understanding of the situation, past and present, and are better prepared to approach the issues with compassion and sensitivity.
Her work on the council has led Robyn to believe that with changes to the education system, the right education pathway can be created to help Indigenous students from more rural backgrounds have access to opportunities that will allow them to succeed in their postsecondary pursuits.
Robyn’s work with the council began through a connection she made during her time at Shad in 2019. While participating in the program on the Queen’s University campus, Robyn met Helen Robinson-Settee, who is the Director of the Indigenous Inclusion Directorate. She led the Shads through an activity that demonstrated the different levels of privilege within society and what can happen to those who have access to few opportunities. The Shad program introduces students to people who are having a meaningful impact in the world, and Robyn cherishes the positive impact Helen continues to have in her own life.
Following their first encounter at Shad, Robyn reconnected with Helen through the Manitoba Indigenous Youth Achievement Awards. Robyn received an award for her volunteerism, and emceed the event the following year, which prompted Helen to ask her to sit on the Kiskentamowin Advisory Council, for which Helen is the Director.
“The experience with Helen was so eye-opening and emotional for all the Shads, it gave everyone such a different perspective into the experience of those in Indigenous communities. I am grateful to have made a real connection with someone who’s such an advocate for Indigenous communities, her work is so admirable.”
Her time at Shad reminded Robyn of the importance of taking these opportunities for herself to allow for the personal growth and development that has helped her become a better advocate for others.
“I was definitely intimidated going to Shad because Winnipeg is still a relatively small city. A lot of people were from the GTA and Vancouver, and I felt like a little mouse in the background. But I tried to push myself to be open and everyone there was so supportive and encouraging, I feel I left a more confident person ready to leave my mark in the world.”
Robyn recently finished a two-year program in Business Administration at Red River College and plans to return to the University of Manitoba to complete her degree in Environmental Sciences. She plans to use her education and skills to continue her work with Indigenous communities, seeing a strong connection between environmental advocacy and Indigenous culture.
“A lot of environmental studies can reflect Indigenous practices. I am a huge Indigenous advocate and have stood with Indigenous communities in their fight to preserve land, like the Wet’suwet’en in their standoff with loggers looking to clearcut parts of the ancient rainforest that are integral to Indigenous spiritual practices. So much of Indigenous culture intertwines with nature, it’s why I feel so compelled to pursue this area of study. I think the actions we take to combat climate change require Indigenous perspectives, and I look forward to making those contributions.”
For now, Robyn is focused on her work with the Kiskentamowin Advisory Council, as she believes education is the first step to creating understanding and a sense of partnership between communities, an opinion based on her own experience. She feels she was sheltered from certain realities in her youth, but following a conversation within her family that came about when her sister was going to the North American Indigenous Games, they all committed to better understanding their Indigenous heritage.
“I began to have a lot of conversations with family, mostly with my Mom, but also with my biological grandfather, and learning more about what had gone on within the community and the issues that still exist. It really created an awareness that hadn’t existed before. This motivated me to not only teach myself but share that information with others so that others can share that awareness and take their own steps to improving the situation for Indigenous communities.”
Robyn hopes that while the country takes time to reflect on Indigenous peoples and their history, that they understand there is a lot of potential within Indigenous communities, and it’s about ensuring they have the opportunity to find what they love to do and realize they are capable of contributing in their own important way. “I want Indigenous youth to find what feels right for them and know that they are worthy and capable, that they all have value.”