Education grad and powwow dancer follows in her father’s footsteps

For Alicia Cardinal, attending the U of A to become a teacher was the fulfilment of a childhood ambition and a way to honour her dad’s memory.

Alicia Cardinal 21 B.Ed

Alicia Cardinal in her fancy shawl dancing regalia for the 2020 Manito Ahbee Virtual Pow Wow. This week, Cardinal will become a proud U of A education graduate, fulfilling a childhood ambition to be a teacher like her late father. (Photo: Supplied)

Many educators say they knew from an early age what they’d be when they grew up, but Alicia Cardinal says she knew from age four where she would go to school to become a teacher. 

Her father, a University of Alberta graduate, teacher and principal at First Nation schools around Alberta, would bring her to the U of A’s North Campus when she was small to show her around.

“He would take me to the education building and say, ‘This is where you’re going to school when you’re older and where you’re going to spend your hours studying. This is where your memories are going to be made,’” Cardinal recalled.

But in Grade 12, mental health struggles put Cardinal’s path in doubt. She said she started to lose her passion for sports and powwow dancing, and her grades suffered, delaying her graduation. After receiving her high school diploma, she decided to take a year off before proceeding to university, but then missed the U of A’s application deadline and opted to apply to another school. She was accepted and was preparing to relocate from her home community of Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement to Edmonton in 2017 when a crucial support in her life was suddenly gone.

“Two months prior to me starting school, my dad passed away,” Cardinal said. “I thought I was going to have him to help me with my assignments and papers. Now I felt like I was going in blind, because my whole life I had my dad there to guide me. I was wondering if maybe I wasn’t ready.”

At her father’s memorial service, Cardinal ran into her auntie Evelyn Steinhauer, who asked about her plans for the fall. Steinhauer, an education professor at the U of A and director of the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP), told her ATEP was still accepting students for its newly launched urban cohort, which allowed students to take all four years of their bachelor of education degree on campus. It would mean forfeiting some of the fees to the school where she was already enrolled, but Cardinal said attending the U of A felt like a good way to honour her dad’s memory.

Now, four years later, Cardinal is about to become a proud U of A education graduate like her father, and she’s landed her first teaching job in the hamlet of Little Buffalo in northern Alberta.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without ATEP. They helped me with so much—it’s beyond education and school work,” Cardinal said. “They cared about my well-being and setting students up for success, which is why I think there’s such a high graduation rate, because of how much support they give to students. ATEP really helped me stay connected to my culture.”

She adds that, though her Cree-Métis heritage has always been a big part of her life, her time at the U of A enabled her to take education and Native studies courses that helped her understand events in her own life, and affirmed her commitment to teaching Indigenous children.

“I lost my dad in a very tragic and sudden way, and I felt really lost and didn’t have any answers for why. When I took some of these courses in university, I was able to understand intergenerational trauma and historic trauma and how that impacts us today. I was able to be more educated on that topic. I think education is the key to everything.”

Alicia Cardinal
For Alicia Cardinal, her connection to her Cree-Métis heritage is an important part of her life and a way to connect with others. “Being a powwow dancer fulfils all four aspects—your mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health.” (Photo: Supplied)

Even before she started pursuing her education degree, Cardinal says she sought out ways to advocate for and speak to her community. She was named the Northlands Indigenous Princess at K-Days in 2017, which gave her the opportunity to visit schools and talk to students about her experiences, her culture and its traditions. She also attracted a following on Instagram, where she has been open about her past struggles with depression, her constant quest for self-improvement and her active participation in powwow dancing to an audience of more than 16,000 followers.

“A lot of people on social media portray their life to be perfect. I like more realness, especially with mental health,” Cardinal said. “I want to diminish the stigma around mental health and encourage people to reach out for help.”

Cardinal said she’d like to pursue graduate studies after she has had time to gain experience as a classroom teacher. In the short term, she’s looking forward to returning to fancy shawl dancing, a vigorous style of powwow dancing characterized by colourful regalia said to resemble a butterfly. The pandemic forced her to take her first summer off from dancing since she started at age 10, and she said she’s eager to return to the ceremonies and the community that have helped ground her.

“Being a powwow dancer fulfils all four aspects—your mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health,” Cardinal said. “I was introduced to it from a very young age. It’s all I’ve known, going to ceremonies and that way of life. I have so many friends across Turtle Island who became my family, and that’s really helped with my healing journey.”