Portrait of Jamie Koukell at Shq'apthut, VIU's Aboriginal Gathering Place

Connecting with culture remotely: Jamie Coukell

July 19, 2021
Author: Jenn McGarrigle

Celebrating Indigenous mentorship at VIU

Vancouver Island University’s ‘su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins Aboriginal student mentorship program is celebrating its 10th anniversary in September 2021. In honour of this important milestone, we are sharing stories of people closely connected with the program every month leading up to the anniversary. Stay tuned for a celebration of this important milestone in February 2022 – when we hope to be able to gather in-person.

The ‘su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins program builds capacity for mentors to gain leadership and employability skills through outreach and mentoring activities. Students hone skills in self-awareness, communication, leadership, self-care and an exploration of personal values, with an emphasis on “telling one’s story” as a path to self-empowerment through outreach to others.

 

Finding positive Indigenous role models can sometimes be a challenge, says Jamie Coukell.

“We haven’t always been able to see other Indigenous people in a positive light – when you look at how we are portrayed in the media and the stereotypes, such as that First Nations people aren’t successful in school,” says the 18-year-old Ballenas Secondary School graduate, who is of Gitxsan and mixed European ancestry. “I am super thankful that I’ve been able to have so many Indigenous role models in my life who have showed me what is possible, what happens when you continue on with your education.”

One of these role models is her mother, Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, Director of VIU’s Office of Indigenous Education and Engagement. Jamie grew up learning about the work her mother’s team does to engage Indigenous students, including the Community Cousins program. When the opportunity arose to join the Thuy’she’num Tu Smun’eem: Building a Foundation for our Youth camp organized by the Cousins last summer, Jamie signed up. The camp was delivered virtually.

“I never knew that Zoom could be so fun and engaging,” she says. “In a time when we were all feeling so isolated, I was grateful to have these amazing, like-minded individuals to connect with. It showed me how much support there is for students who want to get involved in their community.”

During the camp, Jamie connected with VIU Elders-in-Residence as well as the Cousins running the camp, and other high school students across the Island. The group participated in cultural activities and did some fun craft projects together like painting rocks and making jewelry. With much of her family in Gitxsan territory in northern BC, Jamie appreciated the opportunities the camp gave her for connecting with others.

“In a time when we weren’t able to go see our family, we created our own online family,” she says. “It helped shape my identity; I was struggling to find that connection with my community. At the camp, I was hearing everyone else going through the same things and asking a lot of the same questions and there were people there with answers.”

After the summer, Jamie stayed in touch with Sylvia Scow, VIU’s Manager of Indigenous Protocol, because she was eager to stay connected with the Community Cousins programs as a squle’eq’, which means “younger cousin.” This past school year, she connected with a Grade 8 student at her school and began passing on the knowledge she learned during the summer camp. From January through to the end of the school year, they met once a week.

Portrait of Jamie Koukell at Shq'apthut, VIU's Aboriginal Gathering Place

Jamie Coukell

“Reflecting on how much the camp impacted me, I knew I had to share that with someone else, inspire another youth,” she explains. “One thing I learned from the camp is how important that connection to the place you are learning on is. I see myself in the student I’m mentoring and I know the connection I’m creating with her is important. I think she would make a good mentor too.”

Jamie is taking on a different challenge this fall – leaving home to study kinesiology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It will be the first time she’s lived apart from her family, including her twin sister Maggie, who will be attending the University of Victoria, so she might try to start a Community Cousins program at UBC to be her support network away from home.

“I’m inspired and humbled by the amount of work that goes into everything VIU does for Indigenous youth,” says Jamie. “Being part of the Community Cousins mentorship program really showed me that culture is important. I’d really like to go from being a mentee to being a mentor.”

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