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Experience speaks volumes

Young people sit in a circle with their eyes fixed on Marion Lerat, Elder in Residence at SAIT's Chinook Lodge. They talk about language, how it was lost, and where it can be found.

Lerat was taken from her family and placed in a Saskachewan residential school at the age of five. She was stripped of her name and became number 47 for the next 11 years — deprived of her identity, her culture, and the people who loved her most.

"I couldn't dream," she says. "For 11 years I was stuck."

The residential school system kept Lerat from continuing her education beyond grade eight, but at 46 years old, she returned to school and earned her high school diploma — the same year her youngest of eight children graduated from high school.

Ten years after she restarted her educational journey — this time on her own terms — Lerat graduated from the Social Work program at Mount Royal University and began her career with the Siksika Nation.

Having spent years of suffering under a structure enforced — in part — by social workers, Lerat was driven to become one herself and take action within the system that had once made her powerless.

"I was always scared of social workers," she says. "I wanted to see what I'd been so scared of."

Despite many dreadful memories, Lerat learned to dream, and she is grateful for the joy she's found: for the joy of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; for the joy of five decades spent with her husband John, who passed away in January, 2014; and for the joy of education.

Elder in Residence program

As the March Elder in Residence for Chinook Lodge, Lerat wanted one message to be clear.

"Continue your education," she says. "Understand the past so you can count your blessings and say thank you to the creator."

Angela Grier, Chinook Lodge Coordinator, says Lerat and her experience is one book of a vast "oral library" created by a strong connection with Native Elders.

Lerat is the third Elder invited to the Chinook Lodge as a part of the Elder in Residence program, which will host a different senior member of the Aboriginal community each month.

"Our Elders are a precious resource," says Grier. "Their stories are diverse, and their knowledge comes directly from their lives - they have known the pressures of walking in two worlds."

The Elders hosted through the program have, and will continue to come from a wide range of backgrounds.

"We want to share a world view and value system through diverse voices, from a traditional orthodox Elder to an ordained minister," says Grier.

Lerat speaks with a group of young SAIT students at the Chinook Lodge Aboriginal Resource Centre.