HALIFAX — Two Halifax universities are sharing a Mi'kmaq "auntie-in-residence" who is assisting Indigenous students to navigate campus life.
Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of King's College said in a release Wednesday they are welcoming Emily Pictou-Roberts as their first Nsukwi' — "auntie" in English — to provide cultural, emotional and spiritual support to students.
The 28-year-old said in an interview there are about 164 Indigenous students at Mount Saint Vincent University and about 30 at King's College. She said she spends one day a week on each campus.
Pictou-Roberts she has been quickly accepted by the Indigenous students, adding that she hears her title called out as she makes her way around the campuses
"I just hear 'auntie, auntie, auntie,' all the time as I'm walking down the street," she said.
The Nsukwi' programs are the first of their kind in the Atlantic region. Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, in Saskatoon, hired an auntie-in-residence with similar responsibilities.
Pictou-Roberts said universities can be intimidating environments for Indigenous students, who she said often feel as though they are part of a small minority in an overwhelmingly non-Indigenous environment.
"In my first month … there have already been situations where I've been able to convince students there is help for them and the resources are available," she said.
"Here, when we're in a colonial institution like a university, we tend to feel small and afraid to ask for help."
Pictou-Roberts said she sees her position as an extension of the traditional role of a Mi'kmaq auntie — a nurturing person who attempts to "take care" of others.
"I've helped with housing, food and small things that might deter people of my culture from staying at university," she said.
Mi'kmaq women, she said, are considered keepers of knowledge who help guide people through the challenges of life, adding that leadership in her culture is historically matriarchal.
But recovering the cultural traditions and restoring lost language skills will be a longer-term project, she said.
Pictou-Roberts grew up in the First Nation community of Millbrook, near Truro, N.S., and attended a non-Indigenous high school along with many other Mi'kmaq students from her area.
She said her grandfather attended the now-closed residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., where speaking Mi'kmaq was discouraged. As a result, he and his siblings lost the ability to speak their language.
Working at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre started her on a journey toward relearning her language and culture, Pictou-Roberts said.
"Most of the students I work with unfortunately don't speak Mi'kmaq … and that's something we're working on as a group," she said. "We're reviving the language we lost to the residential schools."
She said that at the Indigenous centre where she works, the objects in the room are labelled with the Mi'kmaq word describing them and the phonetic pronunciation.
"Next semester I intend to invite other members of Indigenous communities to come and teach their language … there are many different dialects."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2022.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press