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Sto:lo stories help for a transformative experience

Wenona Victor of the Indigenous Studies Faculty at University of the Fraser Valley sits in the Gathering Place at Canada Education Park, July 18. - Greg Laychak
Wenona Victor of the Indigenous Studies Faculty at University of the Fraser Valley sits in the Gathering Place at Canada Education Park, July 18.
— image credit: Greg Laychak

Visual arts instructor Stephanie Gould has seen more than a few variations on group work—and one particular program stands out in her mind.

“When students work in a cohort, something happens,” she says.

She’s talking about the Lens of Empowerment project, which returns to the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) this fall. It joins lens-based media with First Nations culture and puts students in the middle of the mix, where they bond over the course of two semesters and five classes.

“The project is a transformative experience for everybody,” Gould says. “Within and between and through all those relationships within the cohort—that’s such a rich learning experience.”

Gould, who has been a part of the project since its inception, says the structure creates a safe place for conversation and creation, involving students from all cultures, genders, and backgrounds.

Over the course of a year, the students’ own stories will mix with Indigenous culture and storytelling, through courses in theatre, visual arts, and Indigenous studies. Eventually their stories will be expressed through short documentaries—their final projects culminating in something like a miniature film festival.

Lens of Empowerment was last offered in 2012, and four of the eleven students ended up flying to London to showcase their projects at an international conference.

It’s a testament to the strength of the stories that come from the students—and a reminder that UFV is on a constant journey in search of reconciliation.

Last September, the university suspended classes for a day to host the Indian Residential School Day of Learning—a day dedicated to bringing indigenous culture to the forefront of university life. It was designed as a way to help bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students and faculty—moving towards understanding and harmony.

Wenona Victor teaches indigenous studies at UFV and will be one of the instructors involved in Lens of Empowerment this year. She says this second instalment of the project serves as an extension of that conversation—a way to continue the healing process between two cultures.

“When you talk about reconciliation, it’s a huge word,” Victor says. “How do you go about reconciling the past and the people and the events and the experiences?”

As the Day of Learning and Lens of Empowerment both prove, reconciliation holds a different meaning for every individual.

“This course is quite organic,” Victor continues. “Whatever each student brings to the class we will use as an opportunity to explore in relation to indigenous people, and then against this whole understanding of what indigenous art looks like.”

This year’s projects will revolve around the stories of women in traditional

Sto:lo territory—and whether those stories revolve around indigenous or settler histories is completely up to each student.

“We’ll encourage the students to experiment and bring their own ideas and approaches to the work that they’re doing,” Gould says. “That’s always such an exciting part of it—just to see what the students themselves will bring and what they will do.”

• Lens of Empowerment is currently accepting applications from both current students and community members. For more information, contact Elaine Malloway at elaine.malloway@ufv.ca or 604-792-0025, local 2825.

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