On June 17, 2016 St. Mary’s University celebrated the first graduating class from the pilot program “Igniting the Fire: Storying the Urban Warrior”. This innovative program, funded through Calgary Learns, focused on supporting Indigenous learners as they sought to improve their literacy level through an arts-based approach to teaching and learning. This project, as stated by Monique Fry from Calgary Learns “was collaborative from start to finish”, and aimed to understand how to make literacy meaningful for adult Indigenous learners. Michelle Scott, FNMI Liaison for St. Mary’s, and Michael Lickers were the main instructors for the course and they worked closely with the community to create a course outline, identify and recruit potential candidates, and run the program. In addition to mentors, the program was supported by St. Mary’s Elder-on-Campus, Casey Eagle Speaker and Del Majore, Aboriginal Wellness Worker with Alberta Health Service, who also sits on St. Mary’s FNMI Advisory Council.

Guests and graduates sat in circle and the event began with Michael lighting a traditional smudging, sharing prayers and a song. Mentors and graduates of the program had the opportunity to share a part of their story with guests at the event. Each graduate’s story was unique and touching with many agreeing with Shalom Hope who said this course was “a beautiful way to learn and incorporate my own values into my learning”. Each of the four graduates was presented with a blanket to honour their accomplishment and Mike sang an Honour Song to the graduates to complete the ceremony. Thomas Snow from the Stoney-Nakoda Nation led the prayer before everyone was invited to share a meal together.

This course was the first of its kind at St. Mary’s University and represents the efforts being made by the post-secondary to respond to and incorporate the calls to action mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada. St. Mary’s FNMI Partnership Initiative is continuously striving to incorporate culturally safe learning experiences in St. Mary’s programming and this course represents steps being made towards decolonizing our approach to academics. Through Igniting the Fire’s focus on storytelling and learning through the arts, participants were able to express their personal stories and learn from others’ while improving their literacy and their confidence within an academic setting. As Michael Lickers said to the graduates “we all have the ability to share stories, Igniting the Fire simply gave us new vehicles to share them through”.

Igniting the Fire: Storying the Urban Warrior can best be described by author Thomas King’s statement that, “the truth about stories is, that’s all we are”. Stories are a powerful force in our lives, with the ability to transform, inform, and provide comfort in times of need. Through a variety of arts based approaches participants in this innovative program were given the opportunity to understand what it means to be a people of stories.