University of Calgary

Agents of Transformation

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 04/02/2016 - 21:01.

Agents of Transformation

Meet six extraordinary individuals who were not only awakened by their experiences at university — but emerged transformed, ready to disrupt, energize and change their communities and the world.
Photographs by James Mason


Sandra Manyfeathers
Reshaping Her Future

by Mike Fisher

As she answers her phone, Sandra Manyfeathers clamours to be heard over a cacophony of happy children’s voices. “I’m still teaching,” she says. “Can you call me back?”

Manyfeathers is at Nickle School in Calgary’s southeast, working as a substitute teacher, leading two Grade 9 humanities classes. The 32 students are seated at wooden-topped metal desks, arranged in neat rows in the second-floor classroom. There is a window close to the teacher’s desk. Manyfeathers has no time to look out it, nor does she want to. She loves being here.

“I promised them if they worked hard, and they have, that they could have the last five minutes to just chill, and they’re just really excited,” explains Manyfeathers, before ending the call.

When Manyfeathers sat as a young girl inside a classroom at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School on the Blood Indian Reserve, the scene was starkly different.

“We were told in the residential school that we were weak, that we were never going to make it in life,” Manyfeathers, BEd’15, recalls later when she has time for a proper interview. “When this happens every day, when you are psychologically and physically and emotionally and spiritually abused, you tend to believe it.”

Manyfeathers has transformed herself from the frightened, but determined student in the residential school system to a proud Blackfoot woman who has become a success in the broader educational community. There was no aha! moment, no revelatory event or turning point. Her step-by-step journey has been, in part, an overcoming of every obstacle thrust in her way from the time she was a little girl in a grim classroom on a reserve.

She aims to turn her own transformation into a gift for her students.

“I started as someone who didn’t believe in herself — because, in residential school, I was told again and again that I could never be successful — to become a person who can perform at a high capa­city,” Manyfeathers says, aiming to become a policy analyst. “Now I can help students transform themselves into excellent achievers.

“My mother was a model of success for me, studying hard to be­come a registered nurse and social worker in her own community. I would like to be that person for my students.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the history of residential schools resulted in 94 calls to action to try and address the damage inflicted upon some 150,000 aboriginal, Metis and Inuit students. Among the many calls, the commission has urged the government to address the backlog of First Nations students seeking university education.

Manyfeathers has found her journey, from the residential school through university to employment as a teacher in Calgary, enorm­ously challenging. She’s made an effort throughout the years to remain firmly and proudly rooted in Blackfoot culture, which is substantially different than what most people consider mainstream.

“In getting a post-secondary education, it wasn’t just the lang­uage that I have had to change, it’s the way I think, the way I need to explain myself so that others [who are not First Nations] can understand me,” says Manyfeathers. “The Blackfoot language has a different structure than the English language, in that [it] is a relational language. Although I predominately communicate with others in English, my ways of knowing stem from the Blackfoot worldview.”

Hired as a cultural instructor to teach Blackfoot language and culture for the Calgary Board of Education in 2009, Manyfeathers is now making the transition from instructor to her first love, being a teacher who can help students — especially the ones seen as difficult or outsiders — shine.

“When I can help a student to see the gift that they have inside themselves, I get excited for them; it can bring me to tears,” she says. “If there is a student who turns their chair to face the wall, away from others, thinking badly of themselves, seeing no place for themselves, this is the student I want to help.”

Manyfeathers did, in fact, reach out to a student in one of her classes who had turned away from the class, facing the wall, branding himself a loser. It was as if she was back in that classroom in the residential school, comforting a classmate. She explained gently to him that he was using powerful, negative self-talk to hurt and restrict himself. If he could start by changing this language, he could begin to heal himself.

“A student facing social hardships is going to have trouble adapting to the school norm,” she says. “The school system, with all of its regulations, is troubling for these students. It’s these students that I feel need extra support. Eventually, I want to advocate on behalf of First Nations people so that others understand us in a way that works for everyone.”