Dec. 22, 2023

Métis Bachelor of Education student leads by example in Indigenous Education program

Melody Kulifaj inspires her fellow students, sharing her knowledge of Métis culture and history
A closeup image of Melody Kulifaj

Melody Kulifaj

Having taken a somewhat circuitous route to earn a seat in the Werklund School of Education’s undergraduate program, Melody Kulifaj isn’t one to take her University of Calgary experience for granted.

“My education has been a long process. I go to every single class. I do all my assignments because I understand how long it's taken me to get here,” says Kulifaj, who is on course to graduate this spring.

Born in Prince George, B.C., but growing up largely in Kelowna, Kulifaj says her entire K-12 education was marked by struggles with learning disabilities and emotional issues that were exacerbated by the death of her father when she was very young. Cutting her losses in high school, Kulifaj reached the end the road with education — or so she thought.

“I wasn't doing very well, and I had to drop out,” she says. “Then I got married and had kids, and I decided to be a stay-at-home mom."

Kulifaj and family eventually became Alberta-bound, first to Fort McMurray before settling in Calgary in 2014. Despite her past challenges in school, Kulifaj says she never lost the desire to return, citing a growing interest in studying history — Métis history, specifically, as it is the story of her people.

“I started with Athabasca University — I did my undergrad through them online,” recalls Kulifaj. "My intention was [to study] history. But then I started taking Indigenous Studies classes, and that's where my passion went.”

Indigenous Studies is also where she caught the attention of Dr. Marlyn Bennett, PhD, albeit at UCalgary, which is where Kulifaj headed upon completion of her studies at Athabasca. Having decided to pursue a two-year Bachelor of Education after-degree program at the Werklund School, she enrolled in EDUC 530, Indigenous Education, a mandatory program requirement taught by Bennett, who is a member of the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation. 

The purpose of the course is to explore historical and contemporary legislation, educational policy, pedagogy and practices related to Indigenous Peoples in Canada, with a focus on First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) peoples.

“[Melody] is the kind who willingly steps up to take on challenges, like being the first to present, not just for her benefit but to set a strong example for others. Watching her, I’ve seen how she raises the bar, guiding and inspiring her classmates,” says Bennett, who was announced as a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Children’s Wellbeing this past August.

“Her influence doesn’t stop at presentations. She's shared her profound knowledge of Métis history, opening our eyes and deepening our discussions. In our circles, her respectful and graceful assistance to me in holding our Friday smudging circles speaks volumes about her character and her willingness to embrace Indigenous practices.”

Kulifaj, who served her fall practicum at Piitoayis Family School in Calgary, which teaches K-6 students through the lens of FNMI perspectives and experiences, says Indigenous education is vital not only for children and youth in the school system, but also to educators — and soon-to-be educators.

“I think all of us can look back at our own K-12 journey in school, and see that we had very little Indigenous education,” she says of taking the lead in classes like EDUC 530.

“It’s an important thing to educate educators on something that's so important and that is often overlooked: Indigenous Peoples' experiences in school. The only thing most people know about is residential schools. It's the only thing they can even really say about the schooling of Indigenous people and our experiences.

"So, it's important for me to educate [pre-service teachers] about that, but not in a pompous way, but because I think it's a really very important subject. I want them to be the best going out into schools and be empathetic to Indigenous Peoples' issues in school. I don't want people to think that I'm trying to be like, ‘Oh, I know so much more than you.’ I want them to be like, 'Hey, we got to learn something and now we can take that you into our classrooms.'”

After graduation, Kulifaj says she plans to pursue her master’s in fall 2024. Beyond that, whether she steps into a teaching role or goes on to a doctorate program is still up in the air.

“Would I go to a reserve school? Absolutely,” she says. “Would I go on and teach in a university? Absolutely, although I don't know exactly where.”

Bennett is certain that whatever path Kulifaj chooses to take, she will illuminate the experience for all those sharing in the experience.

Teaching isn’t just about delivering lectures. It's about witnessing the growth and brilliance of students like Melody,” Bennett says. "She’s a testament to the rich tapestry of experiences that make our learning community so vibrant.”

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, "in a good way," UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.

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