Celebrating two of our impactful Indigenous students

June 21st marks National Indigenous Peoples Day here in Canada. To commemorate the important day, we are featuring Shawna Chatterton-Jerome (’21), and Cassey Perley, both of whom have already had, and continue to have, a lasting impact on the Bishop’s community and future generations of Indigenous students.

Shawna Chatterton-Jerome (’21)

It was only once she started attending Champlain College five years ago that Shawna Chatterton-Jerome (she/her) started learning about and questioning her Indigenous roots. Half a decade and a B.A. in Sociology later, Shawna has become one of the university’s most involved students and an inspiration for many.

Born on the mi’kmaw reserve of Gesgapegiag in eastern Québec, Shawna moved to Drummondville in grade 1, but despite the distance her family went back in the summers to visit  the extended family. “Just recently I’ve been going back on my own,” she says. “I’m starting to learn more about myself and my community. My dad would never talk about anything that had to do with Indigenous people or the problems we face, so everything is kind of new to me as well.”

During her three years at Bishop’s, Shawna co-lead the Indigenous Cultural Alliance (ICA) from 2019-2021, was a Turtle Island intern for those same years, and has sat on the Kwigw8mna committee since its beginnings. She was also recently on the hiring committee for a Canadian Research Chair in Indigenous Studies. She has seen great progress made at the university since her beginnings: “Everything evolves and gets better with time, and since I got involved the ICA has gotten a couple more events in like the moose hide campaign and ‘have a heart’ day. The Kwigw8mna development has taken a lot of my time over the last two year, but the relationship has improved a lot after we advocated for good representation of space.”

“I’m always looking to be an activist,” Shawna says. “On October 9th I’ll be speaking at an event about the housing crisis. I’m always looking to bring awareness to Indigenous issues and sensitize the general public. A lot of the systemic racism going on exists right here and right now, so my future holds a lot of activism in it.” Her involvement and activism simultaneously allow Shawna to learn about her culture and herself. “I feel more whole when I actually participate and do things, when I share any knowledge I’ve learned.”

The Indigenous community at Bishop’s acts as a catalyst of involvement and self-exploration, and a second family to Shawna and many others. “I have never felt so connected since I joined the ICA. The group and the community helped me evolve a lot, get involved and participate. I found such a sense of home and community in the ICA, my whole university experience stems from that group,” she says. “If new students want to feel connected, join the ICA for a family away from home.”

It has only been a month since Shawna has graduated, but she’s already been back to the Gaspé coast, organized the 215 pairs of shoes memorial in the Quad to honour the lost children in Kamloops, and planned an event with the ICA for National Indigenous Peoples Day on the 21st of June. She has also continued her position as the Turtle Island intern for the university, the goal of which is to promote Indigenous culture and bring awareness to certain issues. With other Turtle Island interns, Shawna has organized major events such as Orange Shirt Day, the moose hide campaign, and vigils. For the first time in April, there was also a black ash basket weaving workshop ran by none other than Shawna’s uncle. She plans to continue attending the meetings surrounding the Kwigw8mna development and keep advocating for fair Indigenous representation and opportunity on-campus.

For the time-being, Shawna is putting her belongings in storage and returning to Gesgapegiag to learn the language and culture. If she could go back and meet her younger self, Shawna would tell her not to be ashamed of her roots. “I never questioned or asked my dad anything. I was slightly ashamed, not wanting to accept that side since I grew up in a white, francophone environment. Just accept who you are, embrace it. I’ve accepted being mi’kmaw and I now feel more complete than ever.”

Cassey Perley

Cassey Perley (she/they) is entering her third year at Bishop’s in Primary Education with a minor in Political Studies. Originally from Moncton, Perley moved to Grand Falls, NB, at a young age, where she is spending her summer working for Mawiw, a non-profit Indigenous service provider, as the administrator of social media and communications, and executive assistant. As a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), she finds that her Indigenous upbringing affects her more in University than ever before.  

Over the course of her two years at Bishop’s, Perley has gotten involved as the Indigenous Student Representative for the SRC twice (2020-2021, and 2021-2022), has been a member of the Indigenous Cultural Alliance (ICA) since her first year, and has been actively involved with Indigenous issues on-campus. She also scorekeeps Lacrosse and Basketball games and is part of the club Big Buddies.  

Perley became the Indigenous Student Representative early in second year after friends at the ICA told her she’d be right for the job. “The ICA are a great group of people,” she says. “They made me feel like I was at home and had lots of friends here. During my second year someone approached me asking if I wanted to take on the role.” The work she does for the SRC and the ICA, acting as a liaison between the two groups and constant resource, is crucial. She describes herself as “the bridge that connects the two. I’m there whenever they need to know what the other group needs or what information they have. It’s great because the two groups help and support each other,” she says. 

Bishop’s, however, has not been without its share of challenges. Perley constantly fights systemic racism that persists in post-colonial environments and has been actively outspoken on the recent debates surrounding Kwigw8mna. Although she has “dealt with a lot of racism” in her personal life as an Indigenous individual, she stays motivated by “trying to turn things around so all Indigenous students can feel safer.” 

Nonetheless, Perley sees significant progress happening at Bishop’s, progress that she hopes continues into her next four years here. “More people are reaching out to understand and learn about Indigenous culture, rather than assuming that textbooks have all the answers. More students have started coming out to the events, we’re getting more Indigenous students to feel at home, to feel comfortable on campus.”  

She also feels grateful that she has a strong community surrounding her for support and friendship, and that takes initiative to begin and lead impactful projects. “The ICA does a lot, like the moose hide campaign, the recent collecting of 215 pairs of shoes on campus (for the children found in Kamloops), and more.” For Perley and others, the importance of community cannot be overstated. “It makes us feel more at home, more at ease. A lot of us are away from family – it’s over a seven-hour drive for me – so knowing that we have people who make us feel welcome and included, that’s so important,” she says. 

For her fellow students and future generations, Perley recommends getting involved and reaching out to the Bishop’s community. “Our ICA co-leads are easy to access, so just reaching out on social media or visiting the ICA rom on-campus – a lot of us are often there – is a good step forward.”  

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