Immersive program combines coding, ceremony, and Indigenous knowledge

· The Pulse
By Brett McKay
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A program that merges technology and traditional teachings has come to Edmonton to give Indigenous young adults digital skills and deeper connections to their communities.

The Indigenous Friends Association started delivering its INDIGital program at PÎYÊSÎW WÂSKÂHIKAN (Thunderbird House) at the Stanley A. Milner Library on May 9. The four-week program is introducing a full class of students to the languages and logic of coding alongside ceremony, local history, and traditional knowledge. The aim of the program, delivered in person for the first time since the pandemic, is to help participants "heal through technology."

"We start through cultural teachings and through grounding our participants in where they live, what the teachings in the area are, but also that we've always been people who have technology," said Danielle Paradis, a Métis writer and educator who is the program manager for INDIGital.

"A lot of us are envisioned as people in the past. When you think of Indigenous people, often we're portrayed like people who existed a long time ago. But we teach our students we're here, here are technologies that we've used."

The Indigenous Friends Association is a Toronto-based non-profit that hosts events throughout the country and online. The Edmonton Public Library's gift of free rental space and the use of its robots helped bring the INDIGital program here.

Indigenous coders are in high demand, Paradis said, and INDIGital has plans to expand its program to include mentorships and certification beyond what is offered in this introductory course. Currently, students graduate by producing a final project such as a webpage, a language app, a digital story, or an online shop.

Students leave INDIGital better prepared for the tech job market, and they also walk away with a deeper sense of community belonging, educator McKenzie Toulouse explained.

"We're giving them all those tools that are going to get them to be more connected to their identity, to embrace their culture, to build that sense of community and support systems within their own social networking," Toulouse told Taproot.

A smiling Danielle Paradis, wearing T-shirt with Cree syllabics on it, stands with her arm around McKenzie Toulouse.

Danielle Paradis and McKenzie Toulouse are helping to connect Indigeneity and digital technology with the INDIGital program. (Brett McKay)

Toulouse said she herself is one of the Indigenous Friends Association's success stories. When she moved to Toronto to attend York University, she said she lacked supportive resources in the unfamiliar city and struggled with disconnection and addiction before getting involved with IFA.

"I messed around with the wrong people, I got into a lot of trouble to almost losing my life because of drugs. And to be a part of Indigenous Friends is the gateway that opened me up to be sober," she said.

"I'm the one that actually speaks of the experience. Because I found my community, I found my connection. I knew a lot of people and Indigenous populations needed a voice, so I decided to turn that trauma and all these things that I went through to something that said, 'I'm not going to be a statistic that Canada is used to having as an Indigenous person.'"

When Toulouse began volunteering in 2016, she was one of only three people in the organization. The non-profit has now grown to employ 25 people and plans to offer two in-person programs a year in different communities. The organization is funded by grants, and there is no cost for INDIGital students to attend.

Storytelling is at the heart of IFA's approach to Indigenizing education. The content of each program is adapted to each location the organization visits to incorporate teachings from Elders and Knowledge Keepers reflecting the unique history of the territory. In Edmonton, this has meant including Cree, Dene, and Métis elements, in part facilitated by Jo-Ann Saddleback, the library's Elder in Residence.

"We're an Indigenous company, so we're always changing." Paradis told Taproot. "We're not really the sort of people that just write things down and then follow only that plan. It not only changes per city, but in the participants that we have in the room."