Courtesy Alicia Ibarra
When Alicia Ibarra learns a new word in Kanien’kéha, she shares it with her tóta.
“I know for my tóta, it hurts that she doesn’t have Kanien’kéha, so it means the world to me to be able to bring that back to her,” Ibarra said of her grandmother, Gloria Cross.
“Whether it’s just a word here or there or just being able to share different things that I’ve learned, I know how happy it makes her, and it makes me so happy as well to have that experience with her.”
For Ibarra, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in First Peoples Studies with a minor in education from Concordia University, and is now turning her attention to a master’s degree, her language journey is inseparable from the path she’s chosen in education.
Ibarra, a research assistant at the Youth Network Chair working in the Indigenous stream, will be doing her master’s degree in the individualized program. Her focus will be language reclamation as a path toward healing for Indigenous youth.
Her project will include an autoethnographic approach detailing her personal quest to reclaim Kanien’kéha. She will also be using mixed-media methods and working to unite youth from around the world to share their experiences around the impact of language on healing.
While Ibarra is seeking to uplift others in earning a master’s degree, she was not always headed in this direction.
“If I think about back when I was in high school, I never thought I would be pursuing a master’s or even a bachelor’s,” she said.
Most of Ibarra’s family did not attend post-secondary studies, and while it was always important to her parents that she finished high school, they did not insist she continue beyond that.
As high school came to a close, however, all her peers were discussing CEGEP, and she wanted to go too. Ibarra settled on Vanier College for a three-year career program in special care counselling.
“My parents were super supportive and very happy that I wanted to pursue anything after high school,” she said.
In her last year at Vanier, she began to work at Native Montreal for the Indigenous language program, where she got the chance to sit in on Kanien’kéha classes taught by Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer; she attended his classes for three years.
“I think I never realized the impact of not having it,” Ibarra said. “When I was introduced to Kanien’kéha by Kevin, I felt like it just opened my eyes, opened a door for me that I never realized and created so much more of a connection for myself.”
She felt a burden knowing that if she didn’t learn the language, it might never be revived in her family.
“Since then, it’s just been so important to me,” she said.
Native Montreal also gave her plenty of exposure to people who were attending university. She decided to apply.
Sadly, her mother Donna Lemay passed away right before she began her studies.
“She was someone who was really my biggest supporter throughout my education and was constantly there helping me in any way she could,” said Ibarra.
She was grateful to receive so much support from peers, friends, and family members as her studies began.
Her first stop at Concordia was the Otsenhákta Student Centre, then called the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre, where she was able to connect with other Indigenous students. “That was the first place that I went because everybody else was talking about that,” she said.
A feeling of being in a supportive environment continued all the way through to the end of her bachelor’s degree when two of her professors took her and a peer out for lunch to celebrate their graduation.
Ibarra remembers ordering the beef tartare.
“We want you to get the most expensive thing on the menu,” the professors had said. “You deserve it, and if you want to get two, three dishes, don’t worry about it. If you want to take some home, please do.”
The professor who leads the Indigenous stream of the Youth Network Chair and is now her master’s supervisor, Natasha Blanchet-Cohen, has been a particularly important figure for Ibarra.
“Alicia is an absolute joy to work with and to learn from, who brings care, generosity, and insightfulness to her work, studies, and relations,” said Cohen.
“Her work will undoubtedly contribute to youth from her community and to other Indigenous youth to reclaim and revitalize Indigenous languages in ways that centre Indigenous youth voices.”
Ibarra’s sister Amanda Ibarra was another key source of support.
“She’s always pushing herself to do better and to do more,” Amanda said. “I think she also is great at communicating and has made some great connections with other students and faculty.
“She’s reliable, and people trust her and know she will get things done and do them well.”
For Ibarra, all this support has been instrumental to her success.
“I am so grateful to have continued on this journey and pushed myself to pursue higher education, not only for myself but for my family and for all other Indigenous youth out there who don’t see enough representation in higher education,” she said.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.