Episode 001

Humility in Higher Education: How to Naturalize Indigenous World Views into Practice

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Leva Lee: Welcome to BCcampus Mixtape. This podcast is a remix of previous live recordings from BCcampus offerings, such as the Lunchable Learning Radio Show, Open Knowledge Spectrums and more. My name is Leva Lee.

Helena Prins: And my name is Helena Prins. We are both on the learning and teaching team at BCcampus. If you love to learn, you’ve come to the right place. I am joining you from the beautiful homeland of the Lək̓ʷəŋən Speaking people, which include the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Leva: And I’m joining you from where I live on the ancestral and unceded homelands of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh speaking peoples. Today’s episode features an invigorating conversation with Jewell Gillies about humility in higher education and how to decolonize and foster positive spaces on campus that support gender and sexual diversity.

Helena: Let’s listen in.

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Leva: I was heartened to find the work of climate action and justice being spearheaded at UBC and SFU and likely many other postsecondary institutions in the province, and I wanted to call attention to this work, so I will include this info in our show notes today.

Helena: Thank you for sharing those thoughts and questions to Leva. I think it’s so important for each of us to consider our relationship with the land. The way I see it, our connections to land provide us with a sense of belonging. Most Indigenous people consider themselves caretakers of Mother Earth and respects the gift of water, air and fire. And I learn from them that we should only take what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it, so that future generations will not be put in peril. And then when we have our relationship with the land, we show it by being grateful to it and also understanding that we have a responsibility to care for it and protect it. And therefore, to me, reconciliation involves building a stronger connection to the land and to develop a sense of stewardship and responsibility to all our relations.

Leva: Yes, in the teachings of Indigenous elders, reciprocity in all relations, including one with the land.

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Helena: And I hope you’re ready, because we’ve got the wonderful Jewell Gillies in the house. Welcome Jewell.

Jewell Gillies: Thank you so much for having me.

Helena: We’re really happy to have you here and Jewel you’ve got such an interesting career story, so I’m hoping we can just start there. If you can tell us your career story. And how you ended up at Okanagan College?

Jewell: Yeah, thank you so much. I’m going to start with my traditional intro and just observing the cultural protocols of my family. And then I’ll happily get into that too, for sure.


So hello to all of you my relatives, my name is Jewell Gillies. My pronouns are they, them, and theirs very proudly identify as a 2 spirit Indigenous person. I am from the four original tribes of the Dzawada’enuxw people of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations. My traditional territory is very roughly the northern part to Vancouver Island and a variety of islands and inlets north and west of there and I am very fortunate to live and work as a welcomed guest in the unceded ancestral and currently occupied territories of the Syilx Okanagan people here in Kelowna. And my transition into the Okanogan, into working for the college was not like your typical path, for sure. I think it surprises a lot of folks, even to this day when I share with them myy background. So I started out pre-enlisting in the US military before I graduated from high school. So I wanted to be a police officer since I was knee high. I was about 8 years old and I knew that. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to support my community. I wanted to bring balance and justice to the world and I had this really strong vision of that. So I was in the military for a time. Then I came home and I went to university and then I applied to the Vancouver Police Department for the City of Vancouver. And I was hired as a very young person, probably too young really to for a person to have that much authority in our community, but I did my best and try to carry the teachings of my family and the work that I did as a police constable and I was with the department for about 6 years and then I realized at some point in that time that the purpose that I had in doing that job is really meant for me to connect with Indigenous community to help them vision something bigger than what they were able to see, perhaps from their perspective. Understanding that colonization is not a historical aspect of our lives, it impacts us every day. And that that impact is our own way that we filter our view of the world, and sometimes we filter ourselves into a very small place. And so, as a police constable, I was trying to help our communities vision themselves in a bigger way, in a better way, and move that filter away from them. But it was hard to do in a uniform. It’s hard to connect with people who are historically abused, traumatized and oppressed when you’re wearing the uniform that represents that trauma. And so, I transitioned out of the police department into education. I moved into the Okanagan about ten years ago, and I started working in school District 23, which is the Central Okanagan school district, as an Aboriginal student advocate. And I remember so clearly my first day at the high school here in West Kelowna. It was lunchtime, and this is my first days in civilian world and work for, I don’t know, I’d been in military/police kind of world for about seven years at that point. And it was lunch hour at the high school, and I was walking down the hall trying to get to an office somewhere. And I was frustrated ’cause like there’s all these really tall high school students in the hallways, and they weren’t like moving out of my way. And I was getting frustrated like having to kinda squish in between everybody trying to move down the hallway during this packed lunch hour. And as I got to the office and I sat down and I was trying to evaluate, like, why am I feeling so, like, frustrated? I realized it was my ego. So, I was very accustomed, as a police officer, wearing a uniform that represented ultimate authority in many ways, that people would, just like that magical red sea, would part for me without me having to say or do anything. My existence created space for me because people didn’t wanna be connected for various reasons. And so, that was such a huge like eye opening moment for me to recognize that shift from working in those positions of ultimate kind of authority to being a civilian. And how do I integrate myself with my community? How do I exist with them? How do I see the world in their place? And how do I humble myself? So, I worked for School District 23 for about five years, and then there was an opportunity here at Okanagan college to do very similar work, in a larger way, for a larger organization. And Okanagan college has four campus locations Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon and Salmon Arm, and we average about 30,000 students annually each year. And of those 30,000, about 1900 are self-identified Indigenous learners. And the amount of opportunity that I have here to support them in envisioning that bigger piece of life for themselves is incredible. It’s transformative. That’s the magical place that I really like being. So, in a very short nutshell, that’s kind of the way that my career path went, which is not necessarily typical.

Leva: Not very not typical, is it?

Jewell: Yeah.

Leva: Jewell, so great to meet you and have this chat with you. So, really interesting route of how you got to where you are and that you chose education. That’s wonderful. We would love to hear more about your role as the Chair of Positive Spaces committee at Okanagan College or O.C. So, could you share with us some of the work being done to foster positive spaces, that support gender and sexual diversity at all the O.C. campuses? And you started, I know, to talk about that.

Jewell: Yeah, thank you so much. That’s a really great question. I wanna recognize that we are at this, we’re at the very formative stages of this work at the college. When I first started here a number of years ago, I wasn’t out and proud, I wasn’t using my pronouns. I was doing things that made me feel safe and comfortable because the norm in higher ed is not queer. The norm in higher ed is not people of colour. The norm in higher ed is white, cisgendered, heterosexual and typically male. So, I existed here, in the first few months, in a space that was very small and I wasn’t existing as my full self. And so, I actually went to a director in student services and asked him, “Can I have permission to create a committee to address the needs of people who identify in similar ways that I do?” And, and he had some probing questions about it, and obviously recognized there was a need not just for our students, but for our staff and our employees as well. How do we show up as their best selves? How do we live fully in our identity? And how do we intentionally celebrate the diversity that exists among us? And through all of that is this piece of education and awareness. There are so many folks in our communities who don’t have foundational knowledge on what it is to be gender diverse, or have a different perspective of sexual orientation, or ways that they engage with other human beings and personal or romantic relationships. So, a lot of the work we’re doing right now with the Positive Space Committee is around that education piece. It’s providing folks with basic understanding that there is more than just men and women in our communities, and that there is this beautiful universe of identity and space that we exist in that is still valid and is beautiful. And how do we empower ourselves to show up in a in a full way, right? So, I talk a lot about the first time that I openly used my pronouns. Here at the college, was when we were facilitating a positive space workshop for staff in our student service division. And there was about 30 folks sitting in this large board room, and we’re going through the session and doing the icebreaker, asking everybody to introduce themselves with their pronouns. And a few folks were a little bit nervous and a little bit giggly, and they kind of, they asked the question of, like clearly, I look like a girl and so my pronouns are her, like why do I need to say that out loud kind of thing? And that was the educational moment for them. And it was really powerful ’cause they went around the room and said, “Yes, you know, I appreciate that this may be an assumed thing for you, that you appear physically to have a female body, and so you know in your mind that you were feminine and you would use she/her pronouns. But that’s the education we need to have, an understanding that not everybody can make that assumption about people.” And so, when I did my intro and I used my pronouns, that shifted the whole perspective in the room. So, it’s the knowledge piece that’s really important for us, and we’re really trying to support our faculty and staff in having a better understanding so they can show up well for our students.

Helena: I really love that, Jewell. That it’s not just about supporting students, but also faculty and staff because that will trickle down in how we create space in the classroom as well, right?

Jewell: Absolutely.

Helena: I’m really wondering about when we talk about positive spaces and the idea of decolonizing spaces, is there a connection between those two? Do you mind to expand?

Jewell: Yeah, so, this is an interesting conversation I really enjoy having with folks. I have a different perspective on language. Language really is important when we’re talking about historically excluded community members, and the language that we use from those positions of privilege. I am a two-spirit person, I am an Indigenous person, I am a single parent. I’m the first generation of my family to not go to residential school. I exist with a lot of barriers in my life, but I also have a lot of privilege. I work for a large post-secondary institution, and that allows me the opportunity to leverage my privilege to have these hard conversations. And so, this piece around decolonizing spaces or creating safe spaces, is so intertwined in how I function. It’s my fundamental belief that naturalizing Indigenous world views into all aspects of our society, is naturally creating equity for everybody. Equity for single parents, equity for low income folks, equity for people who have accessibility needs, equity for folks who are actively trying to manage their mental health and wellness, equity for not just Indigenous perspectives of the world, but equity for everybody’s perspective. And so, those things really tie it naturally for me. If I can embed those beliefs into the culture at the college, then I can feel a little bit more comfortable that we’re creating safer spaces for our students.


Leva: I just love how the more that I learn just how the holistic approach is really hoping, I hope to bring more balance to ourselves and to the world that we live in. And we’ve only touched only on this topic very much on the surface. And we hope that this will be a conversation starter, and for some inspiration for all our listeners too to delve and learn more, Jewell. So, we thank you so much for sharing so much with us today. Now, just maybe a little fun question we thought we’d ask you is that we understand that you do some beading and that you call it medicine. So, we thought it might be interesting for you to share a little bit about that with us.

Jewell: Yeah, so I love this question. Thank you for asking it. And this is like one of those ways that we naturalize Indigenous perspectives into our lives. So, I do traditional beadwork, and I talk a lot about how doing the beading, actually beading things into a necklace, or into a medallion, or into earrings, or into my daughter’s jingle dress regalia, that activity for me is such great medicine. It gives me this intentional space where I’m creating joy, I’m creating something that’s beautiful, I’m creating things that are gonna be used by my family members in ceremony or at events. But the thing that we talk about less often in this whole idea of beadwork in medicine, is wearing your beadwork is also medicine. If you were to look into indigenous community and see our people wearing their large beaded earrings with their big medallions and their rope wrapped necklaces, there is pride there. There is joy there, there’s exuberance. We are reclaiming and revitalizing these traditional ways and how we express our identities. And that is also medicine. We’re repatriating to ourselves, our Indigeneity in such intentional ways that are also in many aspects kinda common place. I wear my beadwork every day, whether I’m at the gym or in the boardroom here at the college,  or having coffee with a friend on a weekend. That is a seed statement of who I am, and that is the medicine that I carry with me to help me through difficult days, hard conversations, or those expressions of joy and exuberance of who I am as an Indigenous person.

Helena: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. And yeah, I’ll have to pick up some beading. I’m not very crafty at all. So, Jewell, we usually end by asking our guests to put out a challenge for the sector. And I’m very curious what challenge you chose for our post-secondary sector listeners.

Jewell: Yeah, this is this is a hard one. When you first posed this to me, like, what is the challenge to the sector? ‘Cause there’s so much room to grow. And I think every day showing up is just naturally a challenge for folks, being able to remove that filter of “This is how we’ve always done it. This is what I’m comfortable with.” Being able to vision things from a different perspective. So, really invite folks when they’re looking at yourselves as an individual citizen in Canada, or as a professional working in higher education or in other industries that are attached to higher ed, what is your action? What is your action piece of reconciliation? We talk a lot about truth and reconciliation as things we wanna discuss, especially coming out of the news in June when Kamloops first let the media know about uncovering the bodies at the Indian Residential School in Kamloops. People wanted to talk a lot. And my stance and my firm belief on this is we’re done with the talking portion of this, I need to now see action happening. So, what actions are you gonna take as a personal citizen as well as a professional in your industry to support truth and reconciliation? Moving to a place where we’re starting to see equity, where we’re starting to see pieces that actually shift and change experiences tangibly for people who look like me, or who carry the same teachings or background as me. You know, a commonplace thing that I often recommend to folks is, how do you develop beyond your territory acknowledgement, is really popular. In higher ed right now, we start conferences and in meetings and convocation with, “I would like to acknowledge that we’re on this traditional territory.” What is that statement doing for you or for the people in that community? Or do you need to do more? And what is that action? How do you develop a relationship with the land as if it is part of your family? ‘Cause that’s the essence of a territory acknowledgement from my perspective. And the teachings that I have in my family is that land is part of us. We’re not just sitting here and acknowledging that I’ve consumed this space or I’ve taken this thing, I’m responsible to reciprocate generosity. I use the land for lots of things. We get our water, our food, the environment provides us with clean air to breathe. What are we going to do to contribute back to that? So, I guess that’s a very long winded way of saying my challenge to folks would be identify what is your action that you’re going to do, that you’re going to take on it in a big way or in an everyday mundane way, that’s going to support truth and reconciliation, actually shifting the meter for equity for all of our people.

Helena: It’s a great challenge and really it’s so timely because just before you came on air, we spoke about our relationship with the land. And I think it’s been pressing on Leva and myself to explore our relationship to the land.

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Helena: Thank you for joining us today. If you like this content, let us know. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn under @BCCampus and on Instagram @bccampus.ca.

Leva: Subscribe to our newsletter at BCccampus.ca for the latest information and details on our offerings. You can also find more information about our podcast at bcccampusmixtape.com and tune in next week for the next episode of BCcampus mixtape.

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