Oct. 27, 2021

Master’s student works to bring Indigenous voices to education in Alberta

2021 Top 40 Under 40: Michelle Fournie, Master of Education Interdisciplinary program
Michelle Fournie
Michelle Fournie Jared Sych, Avenue magazine

Michelle Fournie, manager of the Iniikokaan Centre at Bow Valley College, believes there’s a critical lack of Indigenous voices at educational institutions in Alberta. Aiming to change that, the 35-year-old is not only a master’s student studying Blackfoot language, art and history at UCalgary, but she also works with Indigenous students to support their success. She also admits to living the dream: Fournie always wanted to go to university and be a Top 40 Under 40 recipient. 

Fournie is a second-year student in the Master of Education Interdisciplinary program at UCalgary.

What is your current job?

My roles as mother, auntie and wife are my focus. I rely on my husband and his family to help me attend class and manage the workload of graduate school. Education gave me purpose when I struggled to find one. I remember walking into the Indigenous student support centre at my first university (Mount Royal University) with an F on my transcript and an eviction letter in my hand hoping they would help Métis students. The staff there encouraged the pursuit of my identity and growth as a person. Now, I am lucky to serve in a similar Indigenous student-support centre at Bow Valley College, reporting to leaders who understand the need for dedicated services alongside committed and passionate staff. Many Indigenous students who have community, spiritual and familial commitments while managing work and school are making great sacrifices for future generations. I really admire and commend them all for their dedication. It is heart-work. 

Where did you hang out on campus before you became a student?

I’ve always wanted to go to university, but I never told anyone for fear it would not happen. When I was in high school, I used to skip classes and sneak into a lecture at the University of Calgary. It was in a gigantic lecture hall where I learned about Pavlov’s dogs and why, psychologically, it would be revolting to swallow a cup of your own spit — meanwhile, we do it all day long without noticing. I remember sitting outside on the hill by the spray-painted rock in the sunshine with other students, pretending to be one of them. Being a land-based distance student, coupled with the pandemic, I have yet to come full circle with this vision, but I will. I look forward to next spring/summer session when I can experience physical classes, which will be exactly what I dreamed of years ago.   

Favourite classes?

My favourite and only classes are land-based and orally taught by Elders within their own communities. I feel the most authentic when I am in this space and grateful to the dedicated Indigenous scholars and staff who have devoted so much energy and time for such an authentic experience. I remember the Bison Harvest within the Poo’miikapii program last year fondly. I was faced with many of my deficit-based paradigms rooted in scarcity and deprivation like those of my grandparents from the war times. When surrounded by Blackfoot community-based concepts of wellness, trust and reciprocity throughout the harvest, it brought me to a place of humility about how traditional ways might heal us today.

What has been your biggest career highlight to date? What are you most proud of?

I remember reading Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 articles as a teenager — but I didn’t allow myself to daydream I’d ever be on its pages. But the more I was exposed to Métis people and Indigenous mentors and the more I focused on giving back to communities well, all of my learnings and experiences seemed to culminate in this recognition. These people and their stories gave me something to aspire to. I just hope that those same young folks who can’t imagine life being a good experience can picture themselves reaching their full potential, too.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

My absolute favourite moments happen at our Indigenous graduation celebrations when new graduates volunteer to share their recent student-life experiences with the audience. It reminds me that Indigenous Peoples are . . . unstoppable. For Indigenous Peoples to succeed in systems designed to fail them are inspirational and motivational and make me want to work toward supporting student success, however students define it.

What are your biggest regrets?

I wish my parents, grandparents and generations past each wrote personal diaries that I could read. I think this would be a wonderful way to get to know about their lives and, ultimately, myself. I think that’s why I am so grateful for stories told through the MEd topics offered by faculty Ahstanskiaki Manyfeathers and Ninna Piksii (Chief Bird), Mike Bruised Head. Each story and experience contains so much about life, love, war and relationships. It reminds me that my role, first and foremost, is that of a human who wants to approach my work with compassion, kindness and generosity. This connection, or reconnection, to the land and storytelling is helping me as a person . . . and isn’t that the point of education? It has been such a beautiful opportunity.

What is the most annoying question that people ask you?

When I was a child, I would self-identify as Métis, and people would ask me, “How much Indigenous?”  . . . referring to blood quantum. They would justify their curiosity by stating, “You don’t look Indigenous.” Now, I am able to see the limitations of their world view, but this line of questioning is painful for many people, and I hope that sharing my experience prevents similar interactions.

When you are not working, what do you do? 

When I’m not hanging out with my family, whom I dearly love, you can find me poppin’ tags in the thrift shop, eating cheesecake in the bathtub, beading some amateur earrings, sewing a crooked skirt and falling off my new spin bike. 

With files from Avenue Magazine.