Case Study: Vancouver Island University


‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins (Aboriginal Mentorship) Program began at Vancouver Island University in 2011. The program was created when funding was received from The Counselling Foundation of Canada. The original training was based on a similar program called “Outreach Mentorship” that was offered out of the Adult Basic Education program.

Changes were made to reflect more Aboriginal content, including having an Elder attached to the program and changing the name to be reflective of the local territory. VIU’s Elder-in-Residence Gary Manson is involved in the program. He brings a supportive perspective based on trust and respect. The students feel that he is an integral part and value his contribution. Other Elders-in-Residence get involved when larger events are held. VIU currently has nine Elders-in-Residence: five at the Nanaimo campus, three at Cowichan and one in Powell River.

Acknowledgement of the territory and protocol is an integral part of the training and of the program. There are three tiers to the program: (1) Squle’eq (Younger Cousins) (2) ‘Su’luqw’a’ (Community Cousins) and (3) Shush uyulk (Older Cousins). The philosophy around this is that the connection continues after graduation and mentoring is a continuous journey.

Two work positions are created each year for students in the Community Cousins program and part of their position is to work closely with the other student leadership groups on campus including Student Ambassadors, International Peer Helpers and Student Residence Aids. Currently there is a position in the Student Residence Aid program that is filled by a ‘Su’luqw’a’ member and the role is to liaison between the two groups, providing opportunities for workshops on leadership.

The Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement offers Professional Development opportunities for faculty and staff and an Elder and a student are always invited to be part of the process.

Purpose & Goals

The main goal of this program is to continue honouring and building on the foundational work that has been established and expand it through increased Aboriginal perspectives and methodology. The program incorporates the teachings of the Four R’s – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, and Responsibility (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2001).

  1. Respect for culture and identity is critical for student success – A universal value held among Aboriginal people is that you have to know where you come from in order to know where you are going. The first objective of the Aboriginal mentorship will be to recognize where students come from, their place of origin, their unique history and experiences that they bring to the program.
  2. Relevance to Aboriginal ways of knowing and being, incorporating Elders Teachings – To further support this objective and guide work in this area, an Elder is an integral component to the program. The elder provides invaluable cultural teachings as well as guides and supports the mentors.
  3. Reciprocity that acknowledges the relationship between the student and community – The program creates opportunities internally on campus as well as outreach opportunities with students planning activities that invite community partners on to campus to share their knowledge and experiences as learners participating in post-secondary education. In turn, they hope to extend activities and services out to the community to share stories and conversation, creating a continuum of support and mentorship. Students sharing their experiences are an important way to demystify education for future students.
  4. Responsibility to empower and foster active participation and engagement – Generosity of spirit and self is an objective of the program, as well as encouraging activities that invite students to share with other students.

Challenges & Future Plans

Some of the challenges have included:

  • Non-Aboriginal students wanting to be involved in ‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins. The program has had to reroute them to other student leadership programs. The content and experiences of Aboriginal students differs as the effects of residential schools, stereotypes and challenges faced within the classroom are discussed. The discussions are lived experiences and that experience needs to be honoured in a safe environment where everyone in the group can understand and be empathetic.
  • Misunderstanding that mentorship is full-time and that dedication to the program takes up a lot of time. Program staff is working on creating communications to address this and explain that the program is flexible and is based on the student’s schedule and interests.
  • Availability of students based on the number of requests received for involvement from ‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins. The requests from the VIU community have increased with the development of the program and during certain times of the academic year students are busy with their assignments and exams and are not able to make every event where they are requested.

Contact Information

Sharon Hobenshield 
Director, Aboriginal Education 

Summary of Leading Practices in Indigenous Mentorship

In 2012 the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training (“the Ministry”) launched the Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training Policy Framework and Action Plan, which commits to improving outcomes for Indigenous learners.  A key objective of the Policy Framework is that public post-secondary institutions will implement policies, programs and services based on leading practices.

The Ministry has since developed materials on leading practices—including on  advisory councils, gathering places, Indigenous student housing, partnerships, transitions, mentoring,  Indigenous knowledge,  and assessment and benchmarking--that have been reviewed by the B.C. Aboriginal Post-Secondary Coordinators, Indigenous Leadership Roundtable, Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training Partners, First Nations Education Steering Committee and Indigenous Adult and Higher Learning Association.

The following summary is intended to assist faculty, administrators and staff at post-secondary institutions to implement leading practices in Indigenous mentorship programs– whether that be making improvements to existing practices or establishing new ones. 

  • Identify and recruit Indigenous student role models who have successfully managed transitions and challenges, particularly in fields where Indigenous students are underrepresented, i.e., engineering, applied science, teaching, law, commerce, etc. Ensure that Indigenous mentors/role models have community experience and knowledge of Indigenous perspectives embedded in their life and practice; and, ensure a role for Elders to participate in this process.
  • Ensure that Indigenous peer mentors have the training they need for one-on-one relationship-building and to provide advice and referral.
  • Provide opportunities for formal and informal mentoring, when there is student interest, in order to foster effective and authentic relationship development.
  • Provide non-Indigenous mentors of Indigenous students with cultural awareness training that includes the local impacts of residential schools.
  • Provide faculty and staff with cultural competency training so that they can mentor students.
  • Work with other student leadership groups on campus to create a sense of community and build trust and mutual support. For example, student ambassadors, international peer helpers and student residence assistants, etc.