Bridging Knowledge Systems: The Science of Finding One’s Place in Higher Education
“There's a reason why our ancestors signed treaties and ways to give future generations access to education. They understood that the world was changing around them and they understood the importance of educating ourselves,” Alex Allard-Gray explains. A member of Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation, on the Gaspe Peninsula in QC, he has lived in Montreal for ten years.
He completed a bachelor’s degree in Physiology at McGill and now works there as program manager for the Indigenous Health Professions Program. It’s a students support unit for Indigenous students interested in health which also is intended to get more students into the health professions programs through science activities and outreach.
“Science is hard. There's no real way of getting around that. It requires a lot of memorization, it requires a lot of work and quite frankly, it can lack a lot of cultural connections.”
Allard-Gray grew up interested in science, natural health and the environment as the son of the community’s cultural teacher who brought traditional practices to students in kindergarten through grade 8. Spending time with his mother in the summers, he developed an aptitude for traditional skills and storytelling.
As a basketball player and participant in the youth elite sports initiative, Eagle Spirit Camp at McGill, he played sports, learned about career options and what was available to Indigenous post secondary students. Eventually he became a junior counselor and was admitted to study at McGill.
“We do things as a community. I initially went into McGill thinking I had to take that school on by myself, but I was wrong. That's not how I was supposed to do it and that's not how you're supposed to do it either.”
He struggled with being disconnected from community, imposter syndrome and academics until he was expelled. Allard-Gray doubted himself, took a year off and helped at his mom’s school with students who were struggling. He became a substitute teacher and the experience ignited his passion for education, mirroring what he saw in his mother all his life.
“You're not just an educator, you're a counselor, you're sometimes a social worker, your students get very connected to you if you open yourself up to them, and it goes beyond just teaching and having to correct students' work.”
Buoyed by praise on his teaching, he mustered the confidence to reapply to McGill and got in. Allard-Gray struggled with his studies but reached out for support and connected with other Indigenous students on campus. He stayed involved with the Eagle Spirit Initiative and after graduation the department that took over the camp offered him outreach work.
Now in his work Allard-Gray integrates cultural knowledge, recognizing the difficulty in bridging euro western sciences with traditional knowledge. “They think that integrating Indigenous ways of thinking into sciences is supplementing an already set science lesson with Indigenous facts or examples. I find that disregards a lot of the rich knowledge that exists in our ways of thinking,” he explains. He uses culturally relevant storytelling, continuing the tradition of his own education where contemporary science was paired with land-based knowledge and skills development.
“You might be the only Indigenous person in a room of 200 people, that can be intimidating sometimes. But I think the importance is that you don't let it deter you from doing what you want.”
When asked for his advice for students leaving home for school, Allard-Gray reinforces the importance of peer support, especially in a mostly non-Indigenous environment, to build the resilience to graduate. “We, traditionally, were not supposed to be in these spaces. We have asserted ourselves as Indigenous people and times have changed, people are a lot more open. The hardships still can exist. But there are Indigenous people who work in these spaces to make it comfortable and welcoming for you as a student. It's important to reach out to get support,” he advises.
Ultimately, Allard-Gray found success in the process of being himself. “I started to excel in my studies when I incorporated my identity in the classroom. If you remind yourself that you have a space at this school, your knowledge you've learned from your community, from your people is valid and there is space for that in the classroom, you're going to find yourself so driven to share that,” he reflects. He was motivated by connecting what he learned to things that were important to his community, which is why he considers it important to stay in touch from university.
“Go with where your heart goes,” Allard-Gray encourages. “Sometimes it feels like you’ve got to fit this mold that is expected of you in school and I think as indigenous peoples we have a skill set that works very contrary to that. It's okay to not fit into that cookie cutter mold. Expanding yourself beyond that and putting yourself into programs or classes that really speak to you is where you're going to find your success,” he continues.
In managing his mental health during the pandemic, Allard-Gray has connected with hobbies that involve working with his hands or thinking creatively, connecting with culture and community from afar through traditional practices. That culture and community inspires his work, he shares, “It's our stories. It's our culture that really drives me forward in the work that I do.”
Working at McGill University, Alex Allard-Gray bridges traditional knowledge with western academics, showcasing his community’s knowledge and shows Indigenous learners they have a place in higher education. “I think people are starting to understand that there are things to learn from how we look at things as Indigenous people,” he says with hope in his voice. Holding fast to traditions of generations before him, he opens doors to new generations of health professionals, building community capacity and adding much needed perspective to a field of study where Indigenous people have been underrepresented for far too long.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.