Over the last two years, over 700 students, staff and faculty at the University of Saskatchewan have participated in a program that is aiming to increase cultural awareness and understanding by bringing students together in an interactive setting, while working to counteract and disprove cultural stereotypes.
Building Bridges is a partnership between the International Student and Study Abroad Centre and the Aboriginal Students’ Centre on campus. Founded in 2013, and started by student assistants Davida Bentham and Janelle Pewapsconias, the program was initially known as Sapo Nistohtamowin, which is the Plains Cree word for learning through understanding stories.
The program was developed as a commitment to the “Culture and Community” and “Aboriginal Engagement” priorities of the U of S’s Third Integrated Plan. The strategic plan, also known as IP3, describes the university-wide strategies that the U of S will follow over the next four years to advance their academic priorities.
“We did a lot of research, and we looked at international models as well as Canadian models and what we came up with was a program that worked with cultural relationship building that was based on a foundation of respectful dialogue, having fun and open conversation or open minds,” Pewapsconias said.
Each year, Building Bridges hosts six themed sharing circles, which give students an opportunity to come together, share a meal of soup and bannock and discuss a particular topic that varies with each session. Some past examples have included power and privilege or stereotyping and identity. Along with these circles, the program hosts several workshops and guest speakers, usually experts in their field, as well as various multicultural social events.
Building Bridges is also working toward fostering student leaders. The group recognizes that cultural awareness and understanding are becoming increasingly important qualities for leadership in Canada.
Arisha Nazir, student assistant for ISSAC, acknowledges the value of this opportunity.
“A good leader is able to empathize with a wide range of people, and will be able to simultaneously appeal to the values and beliefs of a diverse audience,” Nazir said in an email to the Sheaf. “We live in a multicultural environment, so learning to think from more than one perspective and being able to work with people from a diverse range of backgrounds are invaluable skills.”
Going into its third year of the partnership, the team has been working to establish deeper roots within the university.
“Our university sits on treaty land and it is important for all of us as treaty people to understand and acknowledge what that means,” Nazir said.
Dijana Sneath was the student coordinator for Building Bridges in 2014-15. As an international student from New Zealand, Sneath argues that the program provides students with information that they may not be getting from their textbooks.
“Indigenous persons of Canada can often be underrepresented, romanticized or misrepresented in the history books and grand narrative of Canada,” she said in an email to the Sheaf.
After attending Building Bridges events and workshops over the past two years, Jebunnessa Chapola, U of S graduate student in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, was inspired to join the 2015-16 committee.
“I am a knowledge-seeker and I am a newcomer and it has only been five years since I am here in Saskatoon and in Canada, actually, so I had the inquisitiveness and also the courage to learn about Aboriginal people, so that took me there and now I have really built up a bridge,” Chapola said.
One of the events Chapola felt especially privileged to experience was the blanket exercise.
“They brought different coloured blankets, so each participant will step on the blanket and the blankets are like Aboriginal peoples’ land so they just show how in one way or another, the colonizers took away all of the blankets and that’s the way they show how Aboriginal people became displaced and it is powerful, the script is very powerful,” she said.
Initiative organizers promote Building Bridges as a safe place to dispel myths, to ask questions, to discover commonalities and respectfully understand cultural differences.
“Everyone is welcome. Bring a friend if you don’t feel comfortable coming by yourself because it would definitely be a rewarding experience and it is worth just having even one experience,” Pewapsconias said.