“I want to reawaken our people’s learning spirits. We can no longer sit back and let the other world tell us what to do and how to do it. We need to take control of our own education.”
That declaration, in a nutshell, represents the heart and soul of Denyse Nadon’s research during her studies in the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program at Yorkville University.
It’s also a mission the Algonquin First Nation woman from Geraldton, Ontario remains committed to achieving as she now works toward her Doctor of Education in Distance Education at Athabasca University – all while keeping her grandmothers, Mary Black and Mary Nadon of Abitibi Lake, Ontario, close to her spirit.
“As I continue my learning journey, I remember their sacred knowledge, which guides me in my life today,” she said, noting her aunt Junie is also someone she holds near to her heart space and seeks advice from.
“I feel honoured to have very strong women in both the spirit and physical world, who keep me grounded especially in these challenging and changing times in education…
“For me, it’s about passion – when you find what you love, you have to take yourself one step further, you have to challenge yourself, you have to push and find your learning journey,” Nadon continued.
“I’ve learned so much more than I ever thought possible, and I’ve come to realize that, through learning and higher learning, there comes a confidence in your ability to change the world around you.”
Born in Cochrane, Ontario to a residential school survivor mother and a father who never received a formal education, Nadon nevertheless grew up with a passion for education – a calling she credits her parents for nurturing in her.
“My dad was our biggest educator. He always said, ‘If there’s anything you’re going to do in life, you’re going to finish school. Go to school and the opportunities will be everywhere,’” Nadon explained.
“When I finished my Bachelor’s, both my parents came to the graduation ceremony. In all the photos, my dad is the only one pictured holding my degree. He was so proud. And my mom is, too. She goes around now telling everyone she knows that I’m going to be a doctor.”
Not only did Nadon exceed all her parents’ educational hopes by becoming the first person in her family to earn a degree, but her choice of vocation – teaching – was also one that resonated deeply.
Since graduating with distinction from Brock University’s Bachelor of Education program – where, inspired by her parents’ experience, her chosen focus was on Aboriginal Adult Education – Nadon has spent more than 20 years committed to teaching Indigenous adults.
“Now, I travel all over the north teaching,” she said, noting it was through that work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, as well as industry partners and vocational institutions, that she was inspired to further her education.
“I remember sitting in a room with 200 people at a curriculum committee meeting. I brought the medicine wheel to them, put their curriculum in the wheel, and said ‘Hey, it’s not quite balanced. If we’re going to teach Indigenous people, we need to teach it wholistically – which means spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally,’” she explained.
“It’s now a successful model that’s been going on since 2010, but I was given zero recognition for it. And I think I know why – because I didn’t have any letters behind my name.”
Thus motivated, when Yorkville’s Master of Education in Educational Leadership program came up during a dinnertime conversation with a friend in Nunavut, she jumped on her computer the next morning and did a search.
That was in February 2016. Just three months later, Nadon was fully enrolled and ready to learn.
The flexibility offered by Yorkville’s online program, she said, worked well for her – both in terms of balancing her studies with her full-time work commitments, as well as her “independent” style of learning.
Using the medicine wheel as a research tool, Nadon’s Master of Education capstone paper delves into the subject of how Indigenous learners can be taught wholistically.
“It’s also about how to incorporate different ways of knowing and teaching from Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy,” she explained, noting the most significant thing that came out of her Master’s research is the importance of building relationships with Elders and having them engaged in the learning process.
“Elders are our library and it only makes sense to have our Elders who hold our sacred knowledge to help guide in our learning journeys,” she added.
“If we’re going to invest in people, you have to invest in education and you have to invest in wholistic education, which means you take in the whole person, not just bits and pieces. It’s a way of teaching and a way of learning.”
Similar to her experience enrolling at Yorkville, Nadon’s decision to take her education to the doctorate level at Athabasca was spurred by a friendly conversation in Nunavut with someone who was already in the program.
“She urged me to check it out in early January 2020, and by the end of January, my funding, my acceptance and everything that I needed fell into place. It all happened within two weeks, so I didn’t have time to change my mind,” she laughed.
“It was meant to be. The only thing I had to worry about was myself and if I could actually do it, but with support and love and guidance from my family and friends, there was no way for me to consider not doing it.”
Following in the footsteps of the leaders of the decolonization movement who came before her, Nadon said her ultimate goal is to pave a way forward for Indigenous students like herself to “walk into their sacred learning spaces with their bundles” intact.
“I should be able to be who I am as an Algonquin woman in my space, in my worldview, at this level. That’s where I’m going with my PhD,” she said, citing Indigenous scholars such as Marie Battiste, Shawn Wilson, Margaret Kovach and Sara Davidson as her inspiration.
“Like them, I want to contribute my knowledge, my way of being, my thoughts and my dreams for the youth of the future…so that hopefully someday they’ll read something I wrote and will find some desire to say, ‘Hey, if Denyse can do it, I can do it, too.’”
Judging by the influence Nadon’s already had on those closest to her, she’s already achieved that goal just by example.
“I now I have cousins who started their BAs; my sister, Tracy, is doing her Master’s in Social Work at the University of Toronto; my niece Casey is in her first-year university and my niece Lilli is going in the fall. My niece Mac and nephew Tyson just graduated last week with their Grade 12 after they both quit,” she said.
“It just goes to show, you have to walk your talk. And if I tell my young people around me to go to class and finish school, then I figure I’d better do the same…Education is contagious, especially if our people see others doing it. I hope that by pursing my higher learning, my family will continue to persevere.”