By Barb Nahwegahbow
Randy Pitawanakwat is a trailblazer and he’s good at it. This citizen of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve was appointed as York University’s first ever Aboriginal Student Counsellor in 2002. Two years later, he was promoted to Aboriginal Student Services Coordinator with expanded duties, programming and staff. He’s a graduate of Niagara College and Laurentian University where he earned a B.A. in Political Science and Native Studies.
“When I came to York,” said Pitawanakwat, “they had two Aboriginal student groups but no services.” He developed the Aboriginal services that exist at York now. “We have a staff of four,” he said, “and we have an Elder on Campus program, and a Sharing Circle program which is actually a mentoring program. Both are very successful. And we also have our annual Pow-wow.”
Community Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers are available two days a week to provide teachings, workshops and counselling to Aboriginal students from across Canada, “coming from urban centres to more isolated rural communities,” said Pitawanakwat.
The Aboriginal Student Centre helps to dispel the isolation that Aboriginal students can encounter in a university setting, said Pitawanakwat. He recalled his own experience when he attended Niagara College fresh out of high school. “I was 18 years old and feeling just so out of place,” he said. “There was no one there that I could identify with and talk to. I was shy and felt intimidated, and so what I did in between classes was go to the library and do my homework there.”
The students who use the Aboriginal Student Centre at York have told Pitawanakwat, “If you weren’t here, I don’t know what I would do”. Students drop in to relax, do their homework, visit friends or make new friends, he said. The Centre is well-used, he said.
The annual Pow Wow is another activity that helps Aboriginal students carve out a place for themselves and feel a sense of belonging at York. Held in March every year, Pitawanakwat leaves the organizing to a planning committee of students, “to ensure they develop their leadership skills,” he said. “They get experience in working as a group, organizing an event and carrying it out with the help of volunteers. They’re out there making sure everything runs smoothly.”
“The students develop a good sense of pride. You can see it in their faces when the Pow-wow’s happening. They’re sharing their culture and it’s something they’re proud of,” he said. The Pow Wow is well attended and is supported not just by York but by the Aboriginal community. The event is listed on Pow-wow Trail calendars and drummers and dancers travel from out of town to participate.
The Aboriginal Student Centre has made York a welcoming place for Indigenous students, said Pitawanakwat. In addition, the university has two student groups – the Aboriginal Student Association, and the Osgoode Indigenous Students Association. Students can earn a certificate in Aboriginal studies alongside their degree program which, according to Pitawanakwat, “can enhance job prospects for graduates,” particularly if they are seeking careers in the Aboriginal community.
Aboriginal students should definitely consider York when they’re applying to universities, he said. “It’s a great place to study and there’s definitely a place here for them.”