The Road to Reconciliation: One Story

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Gwen Stewart (front) with her current class of Hairstylist students

“We should not regret mistakes. We must learn from them.” – Ramon Bautista

Mistakes are inevitable but, as Mr. Bautista stated, they are an opportunity to learn and grow. Several years ago, College of the Rockies’ Hairstylist instructor Gwen Stewart made a mistake. However, she used that mistake as the inspiration to grow personally and to enhance her program to better serve her students.

What was the mistake? Gwen was at an event on campus when she found herself standing next to an Indigenous man who, at the time, was a College employee. Being a hairdresser, she was struck by his stunning long hair, so she reached out to stroke it and tell him how beautiful it was. What she got instead was a lesson.

Hair is sacred in many Indigenous cultures. Though Gwen was attempting to pay a compliment, the man instead felt offended. Considering hair to have a direct tie to his ancestors, having it touched without permission felt like a violation. His people, the Ojibwe, believe the ancestors are part of the environment from the rocks used in sweat lodges to the hair on their heads.

Another contributor to Indigenous people’s relationship to their hair was the residential school experience, where as part of the mandate to remove Indigenous culture from the children, the young students would have their hair cut off.

Understandably, Gwen was mortified by her error. Rather than just feeling bad and moving on, however, she vowed to make a change.

“We have to get educated about this – we’re on the traditional territory,” she said.

And getting educated is just what Gwen did – and she now shares that knowledge with her students. Thanks to Gwen’s hard work, the College’s Hairstylist program was the first Hairstylist program in B.C. to Indigenize its curriculum.

Gwen and her students are frequent visitors to the Place Where People Gather

“We of course include the Ktunaxa perspective as we are living and learning on Ktunaxa traditional territory, but we also incorporate Cree, Blackfoot, Coast Salish, and many other Indigenous cultures and traditions.”

Gwen’s students now don’t just learn to cut, colour, and style but can learn about Indigenous cultures and traditions relating to hair – and beyond. If a client at the program’s salon self-identifies as Indigenous, students are now aware that oftentimes Indigenous people cut their hair due to a loss. For this reason, the salon now has envelopes available for clients who wish to keep their hair to perform a smudge or who would like Gwen and her students to take the hair into the Community Forest to give it back to the earth.

In years past, the late Ktunaxa Elder Herman Alpine would come to the College once a month to have his hair trimmed and would talk to Hairstylist students about the history of residential schools. Gwen also encourages her students to go to St. Eugene Mission and through the interpretative centre. With increased understanding of the Indigenous experience, students will have an improved ability to connect with their Indigenous clients.

Indigenization of her program has not been accomplished by Gwen alone. Ktunaxa Nation Governance Coordinator, Bonnie Harvey, has been especially instrumental in providing support, guidance, and direction.

The relationship between Bonnie and Gwen (Gwen considers Bonnie a mentor) led to an exciting experience for the 2022 Hairstylist students. They were invited to not only attend a local Pow Wow but were asked to help prepare some of the dancers’ hair prior to the event.

While Hairstylist students braid mink and leather into the hair of a Pow Wow participant, College President Paul Vogt looks on.

“I can’t thank Bonnie enough for all of her help as we Indigenized the program and for still being available as a tremendous resource for me, and the College as a whole,” she said. “We can’t thank her enough for the invitation to participate in the Pow Wow, it was a wonderful learning experience for my students. By the time the Pow Wow started, we had braided over 30 peoples’ hair, including weaving in mink and leather and more.  It was an honour for us to have been included in such a sacred event.”

Indigenous enrolment into the Hairstylist program has increased since the program was Indigenized, this year welcoming students from Cree, Ktunaxa and Inuit communities. Gwen hopes the trend will continue.

“It’s become such a passion for me,” she said. “Obviously cutting hair is my primary passion, but this is definitely my second.”

Gwen also takes regular advantage of access to the Place Where People Gather (PWPG), sending students there to study when they’re having trouble focusing and taking part in cultural events. Most recently that included serving lunch to the Elders at the PWPG’s Open House.”

The work Gwen is doing is being noticed. Not only was the Indigenization of the Hairstylist program featured in Maclean’s magazine in February 2016, but for the first time ever provincial articulation of the Hairstylist curriculum is being held at College of the Rockies. This is as a direct result of her work, which she will be speaking on at the event. She’s also looking forward to enjoying some traditional foods with her provincial colleagues. Catering will be supplied by Fry Bread for Fun$, a catering company operated by Bonnie Harvey’s husband.

Hairstylist students helped braid the hair of two RCMP officers who marched in the Grand Entry. College VP Finance Dianne Teslak (back row, 2nd from right) also represented the College at the event.

Moving forward, Gwen looks forward to continuing to invite Elders and Knowledge Holders into her classroom to talk with her students about their experiences and will continue to seek out new ways to introduce her students to Indigenous culture and traditions.

You make us Small College Proud, Gwen!