Until three years ago, Jolene Hill knew nothing about the history of residential schools in Canada.
Life on a reserve was foreign to the master’s student who grew up in Arkansas as the adopted aboriginal daughter of white parents. In fact, just about any issue facing Canada’s First Nations was unknown to her.
Then Hill, whose birth family is from the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C., came to Brock in 2010 to pursue her master’s degree in psychology. That’s when Hill got an education in being aboriginal in Canada.
Outside of school, she took at 12-week workshop designed to help First Nations peoples find employment. Hill landed a job at the Niagara Regional Native Centre in Niagara-on-the-Lake where she heard the life stories of her co-workers and the challenges they’ve faced as First Nations peoples in Canada.
At Brock, she connected with Aboriginal Student Services and participated in the programs and services it offered.
Every experience with Niagara’s First Nations community on campus and off only solidified for Hill what she wanted to do with her career.
She wants to help those who haven’t been as fortunate as she has, getting her master’s in theology at Wilfrid Laurier University and eventually becoming a chaplain at a prison being built on Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver, B.C.
“When I was 15, 20, 25, people always asked if I was interested in my origins. I wasn’t,” Hill said. “I was busy running around with friends. But as you get older, you start to think about things.
“When I talk to my birth mom, I see someone who acts like me and talks like me,” Hill added. “Because she has an aboriginal background and is living on a reserve, I’m interested in how she grew up. She’s been discriminated against but I haven’t been because people always thought I was white.”
Hill was recognized for her leadership on campus and off, and her academic achievements, Wednesday at the 14th annual Aboriginal Achievement Awards at Pond Inlet. The awards are presented by Aboriginal Student Services and the Student Development Centre.
“As a recipient of this award, I promise to do my best to be a leader in the aboriginal community and to help facilitate harmony between aboriginals and the general population of Canada,” Hill told the audience at the ceremony.
Joining her in the accolades was Renée Monchalin, who is in her last year of studying public health.
Monchalin started at Brock as a communications student but quickly learned after connecting with Aboriginal Student Services that her passion was First Nations health issues. She changed her major to public health with the goal reducing drug and alcohol abuse in aboriginal communities.
Since then, Monchalin has worked with the Region’s public health department on youth health initiatives, as well as the Southern Ontario Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative (SOADI).
“Renée has really strong purpose, direction and passion for health issues affecting the aboriginal community,” said Prof. John Hay, who taught Monchalin. “I think she has all the trappings and skills to be an effective leader in the future.”
Monchalin said she was honoured to receive the award.
“I appreciate that I have the support system here,” she said. “I’m just really grateful and motivated to do more and more.”