Rising to new heights in Indigenous education and social justice

By Meg Winter and Michelle Butterfield

Please note, this story includes difficult topics that some readers may find distressing. It includes mention of residential schools, structural and systematic modes of oppression. Support resources are available (see below). This Q&A was adapted from a longer conversation.

Phoenix Charlie is a 39-year-old Indigenous student who grew up on Vancouver Island and came to UVic to study social justice in 2018. Last year, after learning about the Indigenous Studies program at UVic, they were inspired to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Studies with a minor in Social Justice Studies.

Phoenix’s path to UVic is ultimately one of success, but not without overcoming major odds. They faced homelessness earlier in life and now reside in UVic campus housing. They are an outspoken advocate for Indigenous students, especially regarding housing and food security. We spoke with Phoenix to learn about their story and experiences at UVic so far.

What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Victoria and grew up at Snuneymuxw First Nation, near Nanaimo. I’m a registered band member with Penelakut Tribe, from a community called Spune’luxutth. Growing up, my mom would put me into respite care and foster care off and on. I think she missed residential schooling, but my grandmother went to the Kuper Island (now more commonly known as Penelakut Island) Indian Residential School. Our whole family is decimated in that sense. We’re inherently dysfunctional because of colonization and the assimilation policies that Canada put in place. I had to piece together my family lineage because my mom wanted nothing to do with being Indian. It was a slur to her.

I remember as a tiny kid, after school I would go down to the Mungo Martin Big House and watch them do ceremony. One day, I was watching the carvers work and they asked me if I was Indian. I said, “As far as I know I am.” They said, “Then you shouldn't be back there, you should be over here helping.” Just like that, I started taking part in the culture. Then, I started asking elders and other community members about our family history.

In school, they always talked about Indigenous people as prehistoric hunter gatherers. The first time I heard that, I thought, “If I call my grandma a prehistoric hunter gatherer, I guarantee there's gonna be a shoe thrown at my head.  

Phoenix Charlie

My Aunt Margaret, who went to residential school, told me that the only way I would know the truth is by asking questions. One day, I was sitting with her looking out over Nanaimo Harbour. I asked her, “Did you eat fast food like I do? She said, “No, ‘Tumock Hwumult - people of the land.’ Before residential schools we lived out of the land and water, using a canoe, as Indigenous people did.”

That was just shocking to me. At school they made residential schools sound like an ancient thing that happened eons ago. Really, it happened for my family. I realized that if she hadn’t gone to residential school, my mom wouldn’t have gone to the Indian Hospital, and I wouldn’t have gone into foster care. Had that disruption of colonization not happened, I’d likely be living as my ancestors had. It's just a weird, complicated thing that I have to think about.

Would you like to talk about your pathway to UVic?

I'm the first in my family that's gone to university. Before coming to UVic, I worked as a social worker for seven years. And before that, I used to use drugs. I was in and out of all kinds of institutions and was briefly incarcerated. So, it’s weird to think of myself as a success story. When I was still homeless, I was able to make the case that my lived experience should be considered equivalent to education, which is how I got a job as a social worker. I can say it was very interesting working with people I used to use with or who I lived with on the streets. And it was interesting going from client to social worker, to now a student.

How has your coursework been going?

Recently, I took IED 372: Indigenous Epistemologies with Lauren Jerke as an elective in the Department of Indigenous Education. She shaped the class so we were all learning together, with and from each other. We’d sit in a circle, check in and get to know everyone, because we were all in different programs. She would also present lectures, but it was more about asking how we can learn from the lecture material as a jumping off point and then educate each other from our own backgrounds and lived experiences.

Lauren's class helped me want to stay at school, because there was a period there where I really wanted to give up again, but I couldn't avoid her class. It's just the way she's creating a platform for honest education. I liked that you’re involved as a student because you co-create the experience for yourself.

Phoenix Charlie

I'm very introverted, but I got to know people in that classroom. I usually keep to myself, but that class forced me out of my shell. I just had to start talking to people. Lauren holds space for especially Indigenous students who are going through things. I think we created a family out of that program. It was hard leaving that classroom. A lot of what she taught; I'm going to be able to take forward in a real-world application.

Do you want to talk about your experience with on-campus housing?

I do see all the wonderful stuff that's happening at UVic, but I can tell you about the flaws with their housing. I live on campus and I’ve had to move several times. I recently got a one-bedroom apartment here, but only because I have disabilities and I'm older. There's a lot of intergenerational trauma stuff that's always triggered with relocating myself – especially from moving around in foster care my whole life.

I've been wanting to write another letter to them to step out of their traditional nuclear family approach to housing. You must be common law, married or have children to qualify for UVic family housing, but this overlooks and ignores a lot of Indigenous peoples who are family but not married, like me and my cousin. I did write to them previously, arguing that they should allow students to pay rent monthly instead of by term, and now there is a monthly payment option. I also gave UVic feedback about the cost of food on campus, and now there is a Meal Plan Bursary for Indigenous students living in residence on campus.

Do you have any advice for other Indigenous students?

It might seem a little bit scary to undertake an education here, but it’s worth it. I can honestly say it’s what I always envisioned in terms of getting an education. In my twenties, I thought there would just be an elder sitting in a room and you’d be teaching and learning from them. That’s basically what you get with Lauren’s approach. Not every classroom has it, but there's a big component of community that exists here at UVic.

A headshot of Phoenix Charlie, an Indigenous person with short, dark hair, glasses, and a short beard.
Phoenix Charlie is pursuing a major in Indigenous Studies and minor in Social Justice Studies at UVic, and has also taken courses in Indigenous Education.


The UVic Office of Indigenous Academic & Community Engagement (IACE) is available to support current and prospective Indigenous students applying for financial aid. You can contact them to make an appointment or visit their website to see a listing of awards, scholarships and bursaries available for Indigenous students, including the Meal Plan Bursary for Indigenous students living in residence on campus.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is a provincial organization that provides essential services to residential school survivors and families experiencing intergenerational trauma.