Building cultural connections
At the age of three, Chasity Cairns was gifted the name Misko Bineshe Ikwe or, Red Hawk Woman, by Elder Don Daniels in Long Plains First Nations in Manitoba. Now, as the manager of Indigenous engagement & student supports at Medicine Hat College (MHC), she has been blessed by Elder Dan Fox from the Blackfoot community with the name Saaám Aakíí, or, Medicine Woman.
Chasity’s background is whole and diverse, her story beginning in Manitoba. Her father is Saulteaux, a First Nations community from O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi, or Crane River, situated on Treaty 2 Territory. Her mother is Métis and comes from a little community called Cayer, Manitoba. Identity is everything to Chasity, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Local 8.
Adorned in a ribbon skirt, beaded jewelry made by Indigenous Elders, and a sash traditionally worn by the Métis for purpose and now worn with pride, she is committed to Indigenous education and building a safe environment on campus for students and community members to gather, celebrate and feel supported.
Led by Heart and History
While her roots are in Manitoba, Chasity has found home in a number of provinces, including Ontario, British Colombia and Alberta. With a passion for helping others, Chasity feels she was called to her profession through education.
Her career began after she obtained her Administrative Office Management diploma and accepted a position with the Government of Alberta, working for children’s services. This branch of services focuses on delivering supports and services to children, youth and families. Her career brought her to Medicine Hat, working for Southeast Alberta Child and Family Services, however after 10 years in the industry, she decided to go back to school.
“I was tired of pushing paper and I wanted to help. In my previous role, I saw firsthand the discrimination that our people face but I couldn’t really do anything. So, I ended up taking the Social Work diploma program at MHC,” Chasity explains.
A mature student and mother of three, Chasity studied tirelessly to do well in school. She worked through the summers as a disability services worker at REDI Enterprises to support her family, while managing to graduate from the program as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
During the time of her education, Canada was releasing the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, a report detailing the experiences and impacts of the residential school system, creating a historical record of its legacy and consequences. As she continued her education and obtained her Bachelor of Social Work through the Learning Circles program at MHC/University of Calgary, she was awakened to the unspoken trauma that was haunting her very own family.
“I started to learn about residential schools and it really impacted me. I found out that my grandmother, who was living with me at the time, went to a residential school and she didn’t even acknowledge that she did,” Chasity recalls. “She would say ‘I went to convent school’ and I would say, well did they take you away from your home? And she would say ‘yes, but only Monday to Friday.’”
Her grandmother then spoke about how her hands would bleed from the work they were expected to do and how she would cry for her mom.
Chasity’s understanding of residential schools continued when she attended the Alberta College of Social Work conference and heard the calls to action being read aloud. Shortly after, she paid a visit to her father, who grappled with his own day-to-day problems with addiction.
“Every time I would talk about residential schools around my father, he would always change the subject,” says Chasity. “So, I started talking to my mom about it and she said ‘your dad went to a residential school, my girl.’ All of a sudden I was in tears.”
In order to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and the impacts residential schools had on her family, Chasity made the decision to move away so her own children would have a different experience, but she soon recognized aspects of her culture were at risk of being lost.
“My mom’s parents fluently spoke the Métis language, Michif, but they would always do it in secret. When we realized it, we were questioning why they wouldn’t teach us. It wasn’t until one of my classes, it dawned on me, the reason they never taught us the language is that they were trying to protect us. You were beaten in residential schools if you spoke your language and by the time you get to seven generations of families going to residential schools, that is a huge impact,” recounts Chasity.
Due to the impact that residential schools had on her family, culture and way of life, Chasity focused her schooling on indigenous ways of knowing. This opened her up to opportunities with Miywasin Friendship Centre, a nonprofit organization which helps meet the needs of the Indigenous community. During her time there, she launched a number of programs including cultural addictions, caregiver/parenting education, children’s centre, and wellness.
She continues to spend her time volunteering for a number of community boards in support of the Indigenous community in Medicine Hat, including the Firekeepers Women’s Society, Metis Nation of Alberta, Local 8, Medicine Hat Coalition of Ending Family Violence and Medicine Hat Police Services Chiefs Indigenous Advisory Committee.
Cultural Connection on Campus
Since beginning her new position at MHC in April, Chasity has hit the ground running, bringing her strong community connection and Indigenous culture to the Indigenous Engagement and Student Support Office.
“We need to know where we are from and who our ancestors are, otherwise you become lost as a person. We need to connect with our identities in order to move forward.”
While MHC’s Indigenous Engagement and Student Support Office has been practicing Indigenous activities such as the annual spring Pipe Ceremony, Chasity has been working to expand their offerings.
In June 2022, she worked to hold an Indigenous graduation, an intimate ceremony which encompassed traditions from both First Nations and Métis culture, celebrating the unique and diverse cultures of each. This included the gifting of sashes to Métis students and medicine pouches to First Nations students, symbols of pride and protection as the students continue their journeys.
The Indigenous Engagement and Student Support Office also created a new tradition, by bringing in Sorrel Riders, a drum group from Siksika Nation to play the first Honour Song at MHC’s convocation ceremonies.
Another special moment for Chasity in her short time at MHC was seeing Elder Charlie Fox - Piitahonista, Eagle Calf – receive the Honorary Applied Degree for 2022.
“I think of where people were at one time and to see changes like these, it’s amazing. We have worked so hard to get to this point and seeing it first hand is so powerful,” says Chasity.
MHC is working to complete the Health, Wellness and Athletics expansion later this year and the space will provide a unique venue to honour and celebrate Indigenous culture and history. Chasity looks forward to educating students, staff, faculty and community members about Indigenous culture, hosting community events in the space and most importantly, being a support for Indigenous students as they complete their education.
“Many of our indigenous students tend to go into Child & Youth Care Counsellor or Social Work programs or other helping fields. That’s why it is so important to have a centre for students with an Indigenous support system. To have an environment where they feel safe and comfortable and a home away from home is an environment I want to create for people. If something comes up and they need advice or guidance, I want them to be able to come in.”
Chasity will be maintaining partnerships with Miywasin Friendship Centre and Saamis Employment Services to ensure that the goal of bringing Indigenous education and culture on campus is met. To learn more about MHC’s plans to expand Indigenous education, connect with Chasity at firstname.lastname@example.org.