Your Voice Matters: Dr. Anita Lafferty Finds Her Place in Higher Education and on the Land
“It's been a long journey. I feel like I've been going to school forever, but I'm a lifelong learner,” Anita Lafferty shared. “I've gone so far in this Western education, it's important for me to continue that growth in my Dene education and really listen to Dene theorists and Dene knowledge holders,” she continues. Lafferty is from Liidlii Kue First Nation, near Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories and recently received her PhD in secondary education.
Her dissertation was a narrative inquiry into Dene learning from and with the land. Growing up she also lived in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with her late father who was Cree from treaty six territory and her mother who is from Liidlii Kue First Nation. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do out of high school and she didn’t have many mentors or role models in her life. She ended up working for Stephen Kakfwi at the Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife, where she was surrounded by amazing Dene colleagues who were making change in the world. They inspired her to continue her education so she could create change in her own way, not necessarily in politics.
That’s why she made the decision to move south and get a Bachelor of Education in elementary. She ended up working in a high school near Edmonton, where she had a very supportive principal who encouraged her to keep going. That encouragement led to her completing a master's in educational leadership and management and then the people she was surrounded by encouraged her to keep going to do her PhD, knowing she had something special to share.
After having moved away to go to school, she has advice for youth considering doing the same. “In my experience, in post secondary, you feel like a small fish in an ocean and it can be very scary. For me, it was finding those same fish or those same pods… to find those same people who are going to encourage you to grow and try new things,” she suggests. While trying new things can be hard when you find you’re not good at the new things you try, she encourages youth to remember their gifts. “We always come with gifts, and those gifts come at certain times in our life, all throughout our life,” she explains.
Challenges can come in many forms, like funding, or in Lafftery’s case, being a single parent at the time. Finding a support group of people who are on similar journeys can be helpful, to have a pool of people you can reach out to. Lafferty was drawn to the Indigenous centers in the universities she attended, finding them to be supportive with tutoring or finding financial aid.
She encourages Indigenous students to reach out for help from university Indigenous centers if they find themselves in similar circumstances. “Don't be afraid to ask because when you get to that point, sometimes it might be too late. Whether you need to drop a class or whether you need a tutor, or whether you need funding, don't hold it off,” she recommends. Lafferty understands how hard it is to be away from your home community and to travel south for school so she’s working to bring more teacher education programming to the North to eliminate that need.
“As a young Dene woman in this collage of a world that we now live in, your voice matters.”
"Finding your voice is really important and knowing that your voice actually matters in those spaces is very important and so that's the message that I would give to my younger self and to those students who may find themselves struggling too, because your voice matters,” she says, hoping others can learn from her journey of seeing her worth.
For a long time, she didn’t feel like she belonged, especially being one of the first generations of students in her family to go to university. She also didn’t see many Dene or Cree faces in her new surroundings, though she learned a lot from elders and communities she lived among while she was away.
Given her dissertation is on land-based learning, she spent a lot of time on the land and she recently took up yoga and meditation. “I need that in my life, I need to be self aware, especially when there's this hustle and bustle of whether you’re writing or doing assignments or your home life,” she shares. Lafferty finds it important to spend time with and focus on herself, as well as to slow down. She also spends time with family and friends to keep balance. But there’s something else that helps her find peace.
"It's really the land that keeps me in balance. That's one of the main things that I like to do, whether it's going for a walk, or spending time with family and sitting around the fire, picking berries, medicine picking," she relays. The other crucial piece for her and her family for finding balance is ceremony.
“My husband's from Alexis First Nation and we spend a lot of time in ceremony and really connecting with that spiritual aspect of who we are as Indigenous peoples. That's really important for myself as well, in my journey. It's helped center me and helps guide me in the work that I do, knowing that that is a part of everything that I do and central to who I am,” Lafferty elaborates.
Her inspirations are firstly mother Earth and secondarily her matriarchs, knowing her ancestors wanted their people to be strong. “I have gone in my Western education and now you know holding strong to who I am as a Dene Cree woman, and really that's what keeps me going, that and my daughter knowing that her life is a lot different than my own and my grandchildren to be and so forth and knowing that there's so much of us that are coming up in getting this Western education but keeping strong in our cultural roots, knowing that we've got a stronger nation that's coming up,” she beams.
She has words of encouragement for the members of that stronger nation coming up. She says, “Keep going. It can be challenging in anything that we do. Your ancestors are with you, knowing that we carry their resilience with us.” Lafferty is happy for youth to reach out to learn more about her journey. It’s been a long one, and she might feel like she’s been in school forever, but she’s a lifelong learner (and teacher!).
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.