Graduate program partners with First Nations to provide unique student experience

By: Cory Habermehl
Monday, October 5, 2015

Jane Manning (back row, far left) and Lisa Gibson (back row, fifth from left) pose outside Antler River Elementary school with their MPEd in Aboriginal Education classmates.

Jane Manning (back row, far left) and Lisa Gibson (back row, fifth from left) pose outside Antler River Elementary school with their MPEd in Aboriginal Education classmates.


Lisa Gibson was living in the United Arab Emirates, teaching in Dubai, when she decided to pursue her dream of completing a Master’s Degree.

Having grown up in northern British Columbia where her father worked in a First Nations community, Gibson had always been interested in Aboriginal education.

She began researching the various graduate programs available on the subject, and after careful investigation, decided on Western’s Master of Professional Education (MPEd) degree focused in Aboriginal Education.

“I came specifically to Western’s Faculty of Education because it was the only place I could find that offered exactly what I wanted to do,” said Gibson, who began her studies in July 2015. “I want to work in Aboriginal communities and my next career step is assistant principal or principal – this program combines leadership with Aboriginal education, so it was absolutely perfect.”

With a mix of blended delivery and in-person courses, the MPEd is one of the only Aboriginal education graduate programs in Canada to incorporate learning directly in First Nation communities. Thanks to partnerships with local First Nation councils, courses for the program have been held in a number of First Nation communities since the program’s inception in 2013. Courses for the summer of 2015 were held at Antler River Elementary School on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.

“We’re continuing to build on the strength of this program, which was first established in partnership with a First Nation because members of that community wanted to meet the needs of locally-employed educators,” said Brent Debassige, director of Aboriginal Education at the Faculty of Education. “The historical legacy of residential schools continues to have a mostly negative impact on Indigenous peoples, and we’re now bringing learning and education back into the community to counteract that legacy and establish a relationship of trust.”

It’s a process that is working quite well.

“This has been a great opportunity for us to show our community and our students that school doesn’t have to end, and to highlight the idea of lifelong learning,” said Michael Butler, principal of Antler River Elementary. “The partnership reinforces the idea that university can be for anyone and everybody, no matter where they’re from.”

The unique, two-year program enables students to consider Indigenous ways of teaching and learning, and places a specific emphasis on educational strategies that can improve Aboriginal student success.

“I’ve never had materials so relevant to who I am as an Indigenous person, or as a professional,” said Jane Manning, another of Debassige’s MPEd students.

In her role as the Aboriginal bridging coordinator at Sarnia’s Lambton College, Manning helps smooth the transition for Aboriginal students into the world of post-secondary education. Having some of her MPEd classes located in a First Nations community was a very special component of the degree, she said.

“The course is wonderful and the materials are really helping me to further understand the educational world,” she said. “But for me personally, it’s a tremendous benefit knowing we are learning on native land – the sense of connection I feel is really important.”

The program, said Debassige, aims to make an important difference in First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities across Canada and hopefully in Indigenous contexts around the world.

“We know education is of crucial value to First Nations people, and that there is a need for more skilled workers, especially in senior leadership positions,” said Debassige. “This program aims to prepare our students to go out and help make those things a reality.”

With the on-site summer course segment of the MPED complete, the program has now switched to a blended delivery, which enables students like Manning and Gibson to finish the remainder of their first year either onsite at the Faculty of Education, or online at home.

Gibson is finishing at home. And though she didn't relish the 25-hour travel time back to Dubai, she was eager to continue her studies.

“Meeting my classmates in person this summer was terrific and we all really bonded, but I'm eager to keep going this fall,” she said. “The degree has been really fantastic.”