Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Ph.D.
The Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program, addresses the under-representation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students at Canadian universities. Factors contributing to under-representation are the lack of academic role models and accessible academic supports for these students in regular academic programming. The Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation addresses this by offering scholarships to Indigenous grade 11 students to support a week of hands-on education at a Canadian university where they can interact with scientists and graduate students in their research laboratories. During their week on campus students have the opportunity to meet Indigenous role models, other high school students from across Canada, explore hands-on research in university labs, live in residence, complete fieldwork, learn about the support systems available to them on campus, and experience the excitement of living and doing research in a university environment.
The Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program is a student-centred Program and a university and Industry partner supported initiative, which brings Indigenous youth from across Canada into a supported learning environment at the University of Manitoba for one week in June. Established in 2009 by Ron Woznow and Susan O’Brien, co-founders of the Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation, the Program has since expanded to include Programming at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia – recommendations from various points of contact during this assessment overwhelmingly suggested this Program be available in every province in Canada. The Program is named in honour of, and with the support, of Dr. Verna J. Kirkness.
The Verna J. Kirkness Program for Grade 11 high school students at the University of Manitoba has become a prized vehicle for moving the ambition of Indigenous students from an impossible dream onto a solid pathway and a bright future in Science and Engineering. The students’ unequivocal support for the Program, their excitement at being offered the opportunity to attend the University of Manitoba, and their hope for acceptance into a university degree Program, confirms the need for this work.
The best and the brightest need the tools and the encouragement to explore every possibility open to them. The Program brings together the necessary academic personnel (professors and student supports) for high achieving students to thrive. The participating students are identified by their guidance counselors and teachers. On campus, they are sharing and studying with other Indigenous students from across Canada. Through the Program, they are provided a clear pathway to learning that incorporates traditional values and knowledge. They work directly with professors, graduate and undergraduate student supports. Students are given a chance to shine and inspire others to do the same.
Dr. Kirkness has stated, “Education is the key to the future of our young Aboriginal people and an opportunity to be a science researcher for a week is an exciting and meaningful connection to the broad world of science. As the Program becomes known, it will motivate our youth to consider science as an inspiring field of study.”
Kirkness, is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, a distinguished alumnus of the University of Manitoba, and national leader in education in Canada who has inspired countless students and educators in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. Through her vision and determination she has successfully established several new institutions that will contribute to excellence in Aboriginal education for future generations. She started her teaching career as an elementary school teacher in Manitoba’s public school system before working as both a teacher and principal in First Nation schools. In the late 1960s, as Elementary Schools Supervisor with Frontier School Division, she was instrumental in making Cree and Ojibway the language of instruction in several Manitoba schools. In the early 1970s as Education Director for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and then Education Director for the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) she assisted in developing and implementing both the influential publication of the Manitoba Chiefs, Wahbung: Our Tomorrows and the landmark 1972 national policy of Indian Control of Indian Education. These two major works have shaped the educational agendas of First Nations education in Manitoba and Canada for more than 35 years. This Program reflects her dedication and understanding of the needs and aspirations of Indigenous children. She has created a pathway to higher education that has inspired Indigenous youth from across Canada to reach higher and believe in themselves.