The En’owkin CentreFeb 19th, 2015 | By llambert | Category: 26-3: Global Indigenous Higher Education, Online features, Web Exclusive
When I think of the Okanagan Valley, I am reminded of the incredible sunny summer days when I travelled through that region as a child with my family, marveling at the beauty of the place. Situated just a short drive from the international border in British Columbia, it was like being in the Garden of Eden—the one perfect place on Earth where our creator wanted his children to live, love, and grow. The place was full of lush green trees and plants, majestic animals, cold clear water, and so many varieties of fresh fruit, including the famous golden delicious apples that taste like no others.
In the Okanagan Valley is the Penticton Indian reserve, home to the En’owkin Centre—an Indigenous college staffed with and geared for the needs of Indigenous people. The college’s goal is to provide encouragement and support for the continuation of Indigenous knowledge in the everyday lives of Aboriginal peoples under the guidance of elders from the Penticton reserve.
En’owkin has many programs for the 80 to 130 Aboriginal students who attend there each year—from Indigenous fine arts to the “Aboriginal Access Program,” which prepares students for further studies at post-secondary institutions. En’owkin also has programs in early childhood development, applied ecology, conservation, and language studies. The En’owkin Centre puts into practice the principles of self-determination and the validations of cultural aspirations and identity for the Native community as a whole. Courses cost $200 per credit hour and the fees are slightly higher for international students. Courses are accredited through several partner post-secondary institutions.
The Centre also has a strong student services department tailored to the needs of Indigenous students. They provide academic planning, drug and alcohol referral services, tutorial services, a student society, a financial planning and a housing department, and a cultural awareness program with ties to the larger Aboriginal community.
The En’owkin Centre has a mandate to provide the education and programs needed by Indigenous people with full participation from the elders from the local community. They also work to enhance the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs of Indigenous people by preserving and reinforcing their culture, practices, and teachings. En’owkin develops and implements community-based education programs which focus on the needs of Indigenous peoples and seek to restore the Okanagan language to its rightful place as the communicator of culture.
One of the En’owkin Centre’s more famous graduates is author and film producer Richard Van Camp, whose novel of life in the Northwest Territories, The Lesser Blessed, was made into a film. More recently, Van Camp has worked on a series of graphic novels called “Windigo War,” which tell the story of a futuristic war between what’s left of humanity and the Windigo people. I caught up with Van Camp and asked him about what the En’owkin Centre meant to him.
Richard, how much of what you are doing these days can you attribute to your start at the En’owkin Centre?
I can attribute everything I do today to the En’owkin Centre. The En’owkin Centre is really where I found my voice as a writer and as a storyteller. When I was at the En’owkin Centre in ’91 and ’92 they worked me really hard. You had to do a short story a week, a narrative piece a week, an essay, a children’s story a week, you had to write poetry every week, so when I went to the University of Victoria after graduating from En’owkin, I was not prepared for having to write something once every two or three weeks.
Before you attended there, what did you know about the En’owkin Centre? Had you heard of it?
I didn’t really know anything. I was studying land claims in Yellowknife at the Aurora College and there was an instructor there who really believed in me, his name was Ron Klassan and I had been showing Ron my stories and my poetry. I had been starting to get published in a couple of local newspapers and he just said, “You’re a writer.” Don’t go off and study land claims, don’t give your life to politics. You deserve to be with other writers. You should be at the En’owkin Centre. I applied and the next thing you know I was accepted.
Was it difficult to get accepted?
I don’t think so for me. It was marks. I had already completed one year of college, I had been published about 15 times, I was in a newspaper called the Press Independent. I also had a radio show at that time called “Malcolm and Henry’s Hour of Power.” So, I fit the bill of what they were looking for—someone who was really creative.
During your time at the Centre, did any of the skills you were taught transfer into anything you could have fallen back on if writing hadn’t worked out?
I think I could have been a great teacher with all the art and techniques I was exposed to.
What were your first days at the En’owkin Centre like? Did they make you feel at home right away?
Oh yeah, hands down. Jeanette Armstrong just opened up her heart, her home. Lee Miracle, you know I was a big fan of hers and to know she was going to be my instructor meant the world to me. I met a lot of friends there, like the late Lorne Simon, Geraldine Manossa, Chris Paul. There were such beautiful and original Aboriginal writers and students that were there and there was such a strong community with the Okanagan nation that we were just welcomed into the city of Penticton and into the Centre and into the Okanagan Nation.
Was it expensive to attend En’owkin? Did you get any scholarships?
In those days there was funding for Northern students to go to post-secondary institutions and because it was the only writing academy in Western Canada, my tuition was paid and I was given a small living allowance.
Can you tell us about your first big writing job, the one with “North of 60,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s hit series about life in the North?
I worked as a cultural consultant and a script consultant with the show for four seasons, and I found I had more clout as a cultural consultant than as a writer. “North of 60” was great, but I was also working on The Lesser Blessed at that time. One of the great things about the Internet is that now you can watch every episode of “North of 60” on YouTube.
Is there anything you would like to add, say for Native youth who are college-age and struggling to find their identity?
I heard an author say once that if you don’t get your grade 12 you will spend the rest of your life wishing you had it. So, with the En’owkin Centre, I can trace my success to this very day at the age of 42 not only as a writer and storyteller, but as a human being to the En’owkin Centre. I am deeply indebted to the staff and the students and volunteers, the faculty who make the En’owkin Centre the magical place and the garden of inspiration that it is.
More information can be found at www.enowkincentre.ca and staff can be contacted by telephone at: (250) 493-7181.
Leif Gregersen is an author and public speaker who grew up north of Edmonton in the small city of St. Albert. He has a strong connection to the North and has published, among other books, two memoirs. He runs a blog at: www.edmontonwriter.com.