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This history is something we are all affected by because we are all treaty people in Canada. We all have a shared history to reflect on, and each of us is affected by this history in different ways. Our past defines our present, but if we move forward as friends and allies, then it does not have to define our future.

Learn more about Indigenous Education and Cultural Services

Connecting with my heritage

March 25, 2021

 Rachel Lynds, Fifth-Year, Mechanical Engineering

My name is Rachel Lynds. I’m in my final year of the Mechanical Engineering program in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and I’m Metis.

What has been your relationship with your heritage throughout your life?

My relationship with my heritage is kind of complex.  Both my parents were always like, “You have some native roots, some Irish roots, some Welsh roots. You’re a mix of everything.” I didn’t grow up steeped in the culture; I was aware of different traditions. When my mom’s dad passed away, I was 16.  We learned my mom had siblings she never knew about, and she dove into our genealogy because of it. We’re discovering a lot of things, and we’re working on it. Since coming to university, I’ve been able to reconnect, which is awesome. 

 

So how long ago would you say that has been?

I was 16, so about 6 years ago.


When you started at university, did you connect with the Indigenous Centre right away, or did it take a while? 

I attended the Indigenous Orientation, which happened before the main Orientation. Indigenous culture and orientation services were the first groups I connected with on campus. I made my first friend there who I still talk to today. It was an awesome way to get connected. 


How has your involvement influenced your university experience?

I think it helped me and has for sure evolved. When I first arrived, it made me feel at home and feel comfortable. I took advantage of a lot of the resources available. I do my best to try to attend as many workshops as I can. I slowly started off by connecting with people, making a few friends. Then I wanted to start learning more; I wanted to build my knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the culture. I was doing that through attending workshops. Through the friends I made and the knowledge I learned during the workshop, I was able to get involved in the community outside of school. One of the first jobs I had was working for a charity called Actua, and they deliver STEM programming for youth who are historically excluded from this or who don’t have the opportunity to join.  I spent the summer in remote regions in Nunavut and NWT delivering the programming to youth that was there. It was a life-changing experience. Without meeting that first friend in university, I would never have found out about this, and my life would have been completely different. And I’ve been here for five years now, I’ve been involved with the charity since my first year, and I’m still involved. I do week-long stints over reading week; I would definitely go up and do more programming with the kids cause it was amazing, and I love doing it. 


What drew you to going up to Nunavut? Was that something you chose, or you signed up, and they sent you?


They partner with colleges & universities across Canada, and they set up what they call network members. So there are schools throughout the country that deliver programming specific to the region they’re located in. So obviously, there are gaps in northern and remote regions where there aren’t schools, that’s where the national office puts together a team, and they send them out and say, “just because these kids don’t live near an institution, they shouldn’t miss out on this'', so I was lucky enough to be selected for the national team. It just so happened that they said, “Alright, this year we’re focusing on Nunavut and the Northwest Territories,” other years they had sent people to Labrador. They send people all over Northern Alberta, the Yukon. It just happened to be where I landed, and I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I’m getting paid to do an amazing job and travel and learn about the culture. This is the dream job.


Obviously, that had a big impact on who you feel you are and what your plans for the future are. Can you tell me a bit about how you see that impact on yourself now and the future for yourself after graduation?

I definitely feel like the journey of reconnecting with my culture has helped me ground myself and be a little more introspective. I tend to be very career-focused and academically driven. I’m always trying to get to the next step, but once you’re done school, there’s no next step laid out for you, and that’s definitely kind of confusing. I think reconnecting with my culture and connecting with all the awesome people I’ve met along the way have really helped shape me and learn more about what I like and don’t like and how I want to go about living life. I’ve tried the 9 to 5 job; it’s not bad I don’t mind it, but taking the bull by the horns and making the most of all the opportunities that have come my way has really worked out for me. I kind of see it like by connecting with all these people and making use of all the resources here, I’m going to be happier than I was otherwise because I’m able to sit down and be like, “Alright, let me push the pause button for a few minutes here and really think about this. Who can say they’ve done this kind of stuff?” It was an amazing experience, and I want to keep living that kind of life, so I’m going to keep going with the flow here.


Do you have any advice for people who were in the same situation as you a few years ago, who have those little whispers about some kind of connection to some greater heritage but haven't taken the steps to engage with that?

I would say, do it! As long as you’re doing it with the right intentions, as long as you’re not like, “What can I get out of this? How can this benefit me?”. If you’re going in with intentions in that you want to learn, connect with people, learn more about the culture and be more involved, 100% do it. I would never recommend against it. The feeling of family and connection is unparalleled; it's so worth it. I know a hesitation a lot of people have is that “I don’t know anything, I was raised out of culture, I’m so disconnected, I identify as this or that, I don’t identify with my indigenous roots.” It doesn’t matter. A lot of people get caught up in the blood quantum thing of “I don’t have enough percentage to have status” or “I don’t even know my band”. It doesn’t matter. If you’re Indigenous, you’re indigenous, and that’s the end of it. You’re a part of the family; that’s how it is.  If you’re able to connect, if you have these resources at your fingertips, take advantage of them and use them because these people are amazing, and they are people you want around.    


Were there any obstacles to engaging with that culture before you did decide to? For you or your family?

Growing up, we only had the whispers of like “Oh yeah, you have native roots, from here and from there but we’re not 100% sure and we’re not status, so it's fine'', and like, I had conversations with my maternal grandfather, and he would tell us “I remember my grandmother and she lived on the reserve in Ottawa in the valley where my family is from. She was such a strong and powerful woman, she did what she wanted and she was so independent”. It was always so cool hearing those stories but when he was growing up you were encouraged to never talk about it. It was something you didn’t bring up if you could help it. People in my family are white-passing so we’re lucky that when it wasn’t brought up there were no questions asked. Nobody took a second look at them. I’m really thankful that the people in my family didn’t have to attend a residential school or day school or anything like that. That also meant we were completely cut off from the culture. It was immediate that you stopped practicing culture; you don’t speak the language, you never mention it. It was a safety tactic. So, it's two-fold in that I’m glad they didn’t go through that, but it really sucks for future generations that the culture was really lost and completely destroyed. So the challenge has been making those connections because it's still something that, even when I was growing up, you didn’t bring up, and it was heavily stigmatized. You didn’t really talk about it, and it was like, “Uh okay, we’ll just sweep that under the rug.” I think now, especially since the truth and reconciliation committee has released the calls to action, things are being discussed more and more. I think that’s great we’re making some progress there; there’s still a long way to go, and we’re working on it. I’m glad the conversations are happening because it means there will be fewer barriers later on. 


Can you tell me a little bit about what your involvement has been as a student in the university community? 

I’m pretty involved. I'll do my best to rattle things off without making this a tangent. I originally got involved with indigenous education and cultural services, so I’ve been attending workshops since day one with the university. Then I became in the Women in Engineering group on campus because I’m an engineering student and felt it was important to take part in that community. Then I started working with engineering outreach, first on a volunteer basis and now working part-time. Fun fact I’m working on their indigenous STEM programming - it's brand new, and we’re launching that this year. That was a super exciting project for me; it was definitely a passion project. I’m also a general member in clubs like Engineers without Borders; I write pieces for the Digital Community from time to time, I’m a member of the digital community. In terms of leadership roles, I’ve been a peer leader before; this year, I’m a senior peer leader. I’ve been an ambassador for two or three years now; I can’t quite remember. I do peer mentorship with women in engineering. I’ve held a few work-study positions, and I'm still employed there. In the broader community, outside of school, almost two years ago, I became involved with an external charitable organization called Hervelution, and they deliver programming, to some extent, but mostly focus on providing access to educational content for women and girls in the GTA who, for whatever reason, can’t access that. Be it that they don’t have the financial capability, they don’t have the internet at home, they don’t have access to devices, they specialize in providing that access to women and girls.


This might be a large question to ask or to summarize but, overall, what do you think you learned from that involvement?

I’d have to say first and foremost time management and organization. Those are two things that have always come pretty easily to me but definitely being so involved and managing school and a part-time job and all of the things that people manage day to day, I’ve definitely sharpened those. I’d like to say I’m pretty well organized and have my time management at peak efficiency. 


A few things I think I’ve learned are leadership, I’ve definitely developed that. Teamwork and collaboration, I know that studying engineering we do all these group projects and labs so you have to learn how to work in a team. I think there’s a difference between people who can work in a team and people who embrace working in teams. I think I’ve shifted from the first to the latter. I definitely embraced what people can bring to the table now. I think before I was more like “I’ll tolerate your ideas and consider them” but now I want their ideas and collaboration. The more people you have at the time with a diverse set of experiences, the better informed your solution is going to be. So I think those are the two main things I’ve definitely learned. And of course, communication, public speaking, all that fun stuff. I’m definitely grateful for a lot of the opportunities I've been able to have.


What would you say is a good way to start for someone who is looking to get more involved? 

I think an easy way is to start signing up for newsletters or an email list, or even I guess now you can follow social media accounts. And that way, at least you can be more aware of what's going on, be it events or workshops or resources you may or may not have access to. It’s very low commitment. It is not like you're signing up for all these things where you have to meet or things like that, but just signing up to be aware and learning about events. You can eventually work your way up to attending a few or going to a workshop or make use of some of the resources you have.


I’m interested in the courage that it took for you being Indigenous and female and going into a male-dominated faculty. When you were trying to figure out where you fit in, how did Indigenous education and cultural services help you build that sense of belonging at the institution? 

Oh, that is a good question. I think because your team was the first team I connected with, that first orientation we had was only 5 to 6 people. It was a super small group, and we could all get familiar with each other. It just so happened that 3 out of the 5 or 6 happened to be in engineering. So that was a great way to start out, and I was like, “Perfect! I met people in my faculty. I know people I’ll see around in classes and stuff”, so that was definitely a great way. Most of all, having conversations with Carol and Jill, members of the team, and people who are involved. It gives you confidence. I know, just showing up, I felt I didn’t know anything about the culture, I wasn’t status, I didn’t know much about the specific roots I just have a general idea, I’m not confident I really belong here, but I’m going to give it a shot. But after having conversations, you’re immediately accepted and part of the family, right? So immediately having that sense of belonging, having friends and people. Nobody cares about the extra things; they don’t matter here. Immediately having that made all the other transitions that could’ve been rockier much smoother. I feel like I’m prepared; I could immediately walk into my engineering class where there are very few women who are going to be in attendance because I know I’m already okay; I’ve got a solid group of people. The first friend I’ve met, she’s indigenous, a woman, also studying engineering. She has been such an amazing role model for me, and we are such good friends now; without her guidance and help and reassurance that “You need to be here, you have just as much a right as anyone else, this is your space too,” that was the best thing ever. It was the only thing that got me through that first week where I was like, “It's fine, I’ll be good, I’m okay here.” 


Summarize for me the overall advice you would give to Indigenous students whether they’re fully into it or just have those whispers; what is your advice to them?

My advice to any indigenous student coming into university is that you may be nervous, you may be scared, you may not be 100% where you need to be. But, come into it with good intentions, do your best to learn what you can, make use of all the resources you have because there are so many, and know that no matter what, you have a place, you deserve to be here, you have the right to be here. No matter what any of the other factors are, ultimately, you are part of the family, you are here, and everyone else will be here for you!