When Justin Sidon, 30, was growing up in the Fraser Valley, he didn’t feel that public education was that relevant to his life.
Even though he’s a member of the Matsqui First Nation, which is part of the Stó:lō Nation Tribal Council, he wasn’t exposed to Indigenous culture or traditions in schools he attended in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Aldergrove.
“I learned very little—or anything—to do with our history in our schools,” Sidon told the Straight by phone. “There were no cultural aspects to the community schools that I grew up in and went to as a child or in high school.”
Because school was relatively meaningless, he dropped out in Grade 8 to make some money. Sidon spent the next 14 years in a range of occupations.
He was employed as labourer, tree planter, fish-wheel technician, and warehouse worker. He worked for five years in a shake-and-shingle mill. He also earned a living in construction.
During this period, Sidon always felt in the back of his mind that he should eventually return to school. But it only happened as a result of a clever move by one of his elders in December 2017.
“He just asked me if I wanted to go drumming and singing with him,” Sidon recalled. “Going back to school wasn’t even on my mind at the time. He didn’t even tell me where he was going. I didn’t even ask. I just jumped in his truck and said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
The elder took him to Native Education College, which was founded in Vancouver by Ray Collins in 1967. A private college operated and controlled by B.C. First Nations, it specializes in culturally relevant education for Indigenous learners. It includes a longhouse building with a totem pole carved by Norman Tait.
After Sidon arrived in the longhouse for a meet-and-greet session with his elder, he learned that it would be possible to attend the school for adult upgrading to earn the equivalent of a Dogwood certificate. That would enable him to move on to postsecondary education.
Sidon said he found the school’s positive energy immensely appealing. “It’s like a family vibe. There is a lot of attention and a lot of compassion and a lot of patience. It kind of reminded me of being in the band office.”
At first, he lacked confidence because he had been away from formal education for so many years. But he has done exceptionally well and became a member of the student council.
Sidon is now in his fourth and final semester and credits caring and considerate faculty members for his success. This fall, he’s planning to return to Native Education College as a student in the nine-month Indigenous Land Stewardship certificate program.
“We’ll learn how to manage land and its resources, the conservation and protection of the land, and sustainability,” he said.
Running from September to May, the program has eight courses, including ones called Climate Change Adaptation, Indigenous Environmental Knowledge, and Contemporary Issues in Indigenous Land Stewardship.
There is also a course in leadership and program management, as well as one on Indigenous governance, law, and the environment.
“My dream is to gain the tools to go back to my community, Matsqui First Nation, and help them develop and grow in a good way,” Sidon said. “Just like any community of people, they’re trying to evolve and grow. This land stewardship will be an asset to that—and also, I want to study business.”
That’s not the end of his ambitions. Sidon would also like to learn a lot more Halq’emélem, which is the language of the Stó:lō people.
And he hopes to share what he learns about Indigenous land stewardship with other First Nations in the Fraser Valley.
College reconnected Sidon with traditions
Native Education College offers certificate programs in Indigenous business, Aboriginal tourism, and office administration.
It’s also possible to obtain a diploma from the college in Aboriginal tourism management. In addition, there are a variety of health-sciences certificate programs and transfer courses. In the humanities and social sciences, there are several certificate and diploma programs.
While attending the college, Sidon started to become far more interested in Indigenous spiritual traditions.
He regularly attends a sweat lodge and has participated in sundance ceremonies. He has also gone on vision quests, in which he fasts for four days and four nights in the mountains near Lillooet.
Sidon, father of a nine-year-old boy, expressed much appreciation for how elders associated with Native Education College have helped him reconnect to his roots.
“I’ve seen how much good it did for me,” Sidon said. “Then I realized how much I want to pass this on to my son.”
As the interview wound down, he mentioned that Native Education College has also exposed him to Indigenous writers, journalists, and artists.
As a result, he’s become a big fan of Indigenous author Richard Wagamese, who died at his home in Kamloops in 2017.
“He’s great,” Sidon said. “I’m out looking for more of his books.”