Celebrating Indigenous teachings at UNB with David and Imelda Perley

Written by Susan O'Donnell and Brian Beaton on May 7, 2019

David and Imelda Perley at the Indigenous Languages Gathering Celebration in Fredericton, April 2019

David and Imelda Perley have demonstrated that while working within a colonial educational institution, Indigenous leaders can create a vision for decolonization. Five years ago, when David became the director of the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre (MWC) at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), the university website’s history section did not mention Indigenous peoples and territories. Today, it includes an acknowledgement of the Wolastoqey culture and their unceded and never surrendered lands where UNB is situated.

David retires in June, following the retirement of his wife and Elder-in Residence Imelda Perley in April. The UNB website acknowledgement is a small symbol of a slowly changing culture within UNB, a colonial institution within a province and country that have time and time again failed to live up to their promises to respect the treaty relationship with Indigenous peoples. Most recently, the university hired a Piluwitahasuwin, (one who promotes change in a good way toward truth), an assistant VP of Indigenous engagement. Amanda Reid Rogers was installed as the Piluwitahasuwin at UNB in November.

UNB is the largest university in the province, and since the New Brunswick Teacher’s College was re-located to the UNB campus in 1964, many of the province’s teachers have been trained there. What happens at the Faculty of Education at the top of the hill on the UNB campus shapes the perspectives of not only New Brunswick’s teachers but also their students and the curriculum in the classrooms across the province. Much has changed at the Faculty of Education at UNB, thanks in large part to the Perley’s work and allies they gathered together.

In a recent video, David describes how he and his colleagues at MWC developed a vision for Indigenous university education. Emphasizing the importance of speaking and understanding Wolastoquey by using the language is a gift both Perleys share with everyone. The development of a language app to protect their original language is a source of great pride for David and Imelda.

Developing relationships with allies has been a defining feature of the Perleys time at UNB. They brought in the annual Peace and Friendship Treaty Days as an opportunity for everyone to renew relationships and learn about the Wabanaki culture. Imelda’s work on the annual Red Shawl campaign has encouraged solidarity with many community and social justice groups to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The Perleys travelled across Canada sharing and learning with other institutions to determine the most appropriate strategy to assist their communities and UNB to find a good path for the reconciliation work everyone needs to undertake. Facilitating ceremonies, including many sunrise ceremonies, sweat lodges and traditional teaching opportunities, is a cornerstone of their legacy at UNB.

David contributed to numerous research projects at UNB, including recently the RAVEN project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) where he collaborated on several articles and videos about Indigenous issues with RAVEN partner, the NB Media Co-op.

David is a member and former councillor and chief of Tobique First Nation. In a recent video with the RAVEN project, he spoke about the importance of establishing a healthy Tobique community in rural New Brunswick, and what it will take to make that happen. His wise words apply to all rural communities and are shared in the spirit of kindness and wisdom of a strong elder.

On International Water Day in March 2019, David spoke about the importance of Wolastoq to the Wolastoqey people and environment. His short video, Wolastoq: A healthy river is necessary for survival, highlighted his enduring belief that it will be possible to work together with allies to stop the pollution of the river and halt the poisoning of the surrounding lands.

Among the Perleys’ wider achievements during their tenure was their work with Fredericton South MLA and leader of the Green Party, David Coon, to develop a Bill to amend the Education Act that was passed unanimously by New Brunswick Legislative Assembly in 2017.

That revision of the Education Act will ensure all school children in the province learn about the treaties that guide the relationship between non-Indigenous people and First Nations, the historical and contemporary experience of Indigenous people, the consequences of the residential school system, and other important topics about Canada’s history too often overlooked or avoided. Today, all students of teacher education at UNB are required to successfully complete an Indigenous studies course before graduating.

David and Imelda Perley’s work at UNB is a lasting legacy for everyone to celebrate and honour. So much has been achieved in a relatively short time thanks to their leadership, patience, generosity, honesty, strength, endurance, determination, faith, and most importantly their love for all life. Their work will now grow stronger with those they taught who are now willing to continue building a strong, inclusive post-secondary environment for all. Woliwon.

Susan O’Donnell, the primary investigator of the RAVEN project at UNB, and Brian Beaton, a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education, have been research collaborators with David Perley for the past five years. Susan is a member of the editorial board of the NB Media Co-op and Brian is the NB Media Co-op calendar coordinator.

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