Imelda Perley, UNB’s Elder-in-Residence (BA’94, MEd’02), is working with UNB’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre to help Aboriginal students fully connect with their language, culture and spiritual traditions, while supporting them on their journey to academic success through a holistic integration of mind, body and spirit.
“I explain to students that when you’re stressed with exams and doing homework, the stress affects your learning and your body needs to feed the spirit,” says Elder Perley. “You can feed your spirit by participating in a sweatlodge ceremony, a traditional way of healing for my people.”
In April, UNB made history as the first university in Atlantic Canada to conduct a Sweatlodge ceremony on university grounds. This is an opportunity that will be available to all students and faculty, as a sweatlodge is being built on the Fredericton campus. Elder Perley and David Perley (MA’80), director of UNB’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, were instrumental in bringing this project to life.
Participating in a Sweatlodge ceremony is consistent with a traditional educational practice that promotes holistic education, says Mr. Perley. It addresses the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of human development.
In her role, Elder Perley is also raising cross-cultural awareness of Wolastoqey history, language, culture, traditions, world views and ceremonies among non-Aboriginal students and faculty at UNB – and across the province.
“This position is for the whole province,” she says. “As a leading post-secondary educational institution in New Brunswick, it is our responsibility not only to bring the spirit of awareness to students and faculty here, but also to educate the entire province,” says Elder Perley.
Awareness-building initiatives like the creation of the medicine wheel garden, planted in honour of residential school survivors, and the Red Shawl Campaign, recognizing the missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada, are bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from across campus and the community together.
Elder Perley believes that UNB has been called by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to raise awareness that we are all treaty people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, and an acknowledgment that the promise of those treaties was not honoured.
As part of this responsibility, the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre hosted UNB’s first Peace and Friendship Treaty Days in October, 2015, a symposium, discussing the ways in which the treaties are defining the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today and encouraging active steps toward reconciliation.
This spring, the centre held its second annual UNB Powwow, “Dancing Towards Reconciliation.” Events and initiatives like these are raising a greater awareness for the historical issues surrounding the residential schools and treaties. Powwows also provide opportunities for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, faculty and the community, to participate in, celebrate and learn about Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey cultures and traditions.
As she continues in her role, sharing the traditions and cultures of the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey, raising cross-cultural awareness among people, and bringing the campus and the community together, Elder Perley keeps her door open.
“As elders, we don’t stop teaching and we don’t stop learning,” she says. “My office is open to anyone who walks in. I see this position as the circle of understanding and the circle of hope for all people, and a circle of peace and friendship.”