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PhD student pursues decolonized education

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In the Treaty Room at Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ont., Ph.D student Nicole Abotossaway of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation has been the recipient of several academic awards through 2023.

By Kelly Anne Smith

NORTH BAY—Nicole Abotossaway has a passion for education. From Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation and calling North Bay home, she says, “I always wanted to go to school.”

Her hard work is being recognized. Abotossaway’s Master of Education garnered a Nipissing University’s President’s Gold Medal and the 2023 Governor General Award from the Faculty of Education and Professional Studies/Schulich School of Education. And this past fall, Nicole was a recipient of an Educator Excellence Award from Anishinabek Education System.

Her recipe for academic success involves discipline, self-motivation, and determination.

“I always had the will to get up in the morning and go to school. I was always that person that wanted to learn more. Why are there challenges in the world? Why are there broken systems?”

In conversation in Nipissing University’s Treaty Room, Abotossaway is now a Western Education’s Doctor of Philosophy student, as well as part-time professor in the Indigenous Classroom Assistant program at Nipissing University.

“Education is a treaty right. Our ancestors were able to foresee the future with greater numbers of Europeans colonizing Turtle Island. We all carry the collective wisdom of our ancestors within us. Anishinabek survived on this traditional territory and homeland for thousands of years before settlers arrived and as more and more of our people attend universities in graduate studies as I have done, we will change the landscape of institutions.”

Abotossaway’s mother struggled to care for her as a baby.

“Starting out my life, I was apprehended at six months old. My mom couldn’t take care of me; I was in and out of shelters apparently, the first six months of my life. And then my great aunt and uncle adopted me. That happened to a lot of Indigenous people, even my age.”

“I’m the first generation to raise my own kids without child welfare being involved. That is pretty interesting. And I didn’t realize I’m a Millennial Scoop, they call it after the Sixties Scoop. We’re called Millennial Scoops because our parents couldn’t take care of us because of colonization,” she explains. “My great aunt and my great uncle adopted me. My great aunt was a Residential School Survivor and my dad, he could speak French, he lived on Nipissing, Sandy Bay. Well, he is my great uncle, but I call him my dad. He lost his status because he could speak French, because his dad spoke French. He lost his status, and when he married my Mom, she lost her status. Their reserves turned them away back then.”

“They were very hardworking, very on the land, traditional people. They were confused between church and ceremony, as are I think a lot of us. I grew up in the church, too. I was grateful that they brought in ceremony, too. When I was trying to find my identity, I knew that piece was missing, like in my spirit,” she continues. “My parents were foster parents for more than 30 years. We had kids in and out of our house. I helped raise a lot of these kids, too. They came from really bad Indigenous homes because of the trauma and the violence and the addiction. I saw that. I witnessed that my whole life.”

Abotossaway has followed in her parents’ footsteps to help other children.

“When I was in my early twenties, I actually started fostering kids with my parents. And I took it on myself and I fostered two kids. And my Mom was like, ‘You can’t do this. You need to go to school’. She knew that has always been my dream,” she recounts. “My parents had two twin boys, too. They grew up and my parents were getting elderly and they couldn’t keep up with the teenage energy. My sister actually adopted these boys. And they are still with our family today. My other sister, too, we came from that helping home and recognizing that there are a lot of Indigenous issues happening… Me too. My biological mother is a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman. And I, just recently, had to do a DNA test for that. After 25 years, they finally reopened her case.”

Being connected to Toronto detectives in the last couple of years motivated Abotossaway to immerse herself in Western University’s Introduction to Social Justice, Equity and Diversity course.

“I want to break barriers. I want to challenge broken systems, change things in education. Why are things like this? Why are their disparities? Why is there so much adversity here?”

Abotossaway is looking around the Treaty Room at Nipissing University’s library.

“I always knew. I worked at Kenjgewin Teg on Manitoulin Island for the past five years and Mnaamodzawin Health Services. They would always ask what my five-year plan was and I thought I really want to do my Master’s. Ever since I was young, I wanted to keep succeeding in school… It was a lot of work. It was like [five o’clock] mornings, waking up and doing that before work. I’m really lucky, Kenjge was really supportive of my education journey. They really helped me, encouraged me and supported me.”

Nicole decided to continue her education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just want Indigenous people to take up these spaces and these places. That’s a very good way to advance your people is through education,” she states. “If I was talking to my younger self, I would support her and tell her identity and culture and education is so important. And that, you can do it. Because I was that girl that was traumatized her whole life, and you can overcome that through all that adversity.”

Offering a helpful tip to be successful at school, Nicole Abotossaway says having a routine is good habit to form.

“It’s just setting yourself up with routine. And you just have to get out the door because that’s going to change your life. It will.”

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