Grant Bruno found strong friendships, supportive professors and meaningful research opportunities in UAlberta's Faculty of Native Studies. (Photo: Richard Siemens)
When native studies graduate Grant Bruno looks at his three children, he knows he’s not only making a better future for his family; he’s also modelling a path for them to follow—a route that his sons set him on before they were even born.
“I have twin boys, they’re seven, and a little guy who’ll be two in January,” he said. “They’re going to see me do it and be successful, so they’re going to have somebody to look up to.”
Fatherhood is what set Bruno’s feet on the path to university. At 21, he’d dropped out of high school, tried college, and dropped out again. But then he learned some huge news: he was going to be a dad, not just to one child, but to twins.
“I had the choice to either start making a lot of money quickly or go back to school and sacrifice for the future.”
Positive post-secondary reinforcement
His partner convinced him to apply to Red Deer College, and once he was there, Bruno learned he was a better student than he’d ever thought possible.
“Growing up, I was not given a lot of positive reinforcement. I wasn’t the greatest student, and I could tell that teachers would get annoyed with me,” he said. But post-secondary courses challenged him to do more. “After my first semester, I got it into my brain—I’m going to do a master’s. It was that early.”
He considered going to Calgary for school, but then he came across the U of A’s Faculty of Native Studies, a place that offered an opportunity not only to pursue his academic interests, but also to stay close enough to his home in Maskwacis to be with his family every night.
“Gas probably costs about the same as rent for the month. But it was well worth it. I’m very happy with the decision. Instead of me having to commute from Calgary every weekend, I could see them every day.”
The first year of Bruno’s transition to university was difficult, but the close-knit community in the faculty helped keep him going: “If I was to try that and I was in a different faculty, I probably would have failed.”
At the heart of his success, Bruno believes, is the relationships he built with students, staff and faculty.
“I made some really great friendships here—friendships that will probably take me into the rest of my life,” he explained. “Before, it was almost like dysfunctional friendships, but when you start making relationships within the faculty here, you become really close, and you can discuss controversial subjects and have good dialogue and bounce ideas off each other.”
Giving back to the community through research
Not only did he develop strong friendships, but he also developed a network of supportive faculty members who helped him achieve his goal of entering a graduate program. His first research job was with Professor Frank Tough in the Métis Archival Project lab. That project gave him the research grounding to take on his next job on a project working on maternal health in Maskwacis—a perfect fit for Bruno, offering the chance to continue doing research while giving back to his community.
Part of that came about thanks to another relationship with a professor who would become his graduate supervisor, Brenda Parlee, who helped connect him into a First Nations maternal health project led by Richard Oster as part of the provincewide ENRICH research initiative funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.
“I took Brenda’s community-based methods class, and after that class, she introduced me to my other supervisor, who gave me my second research position, and through that position, I’m able to do my master’s now.”
Although an MA in Native Studies was his original plan, he’s now an MSc student in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, working with Parlee and ENRICH principal investigator Rhonda Bell to continue his work.
Even though he’s just starting out, that undergraduate research experience helped set Bruno well on the path for his graduate studies. His first study examined the effect of health-care provider perceptions on effective prenatal care for women from Maskwacis, giving him an immediate sense of giving back to his home community.
“From there, we took it a step further. To my knowledge, we are doing the first-ever look at Indigenous fathers’ roles for maternal health,” Bruno explained. “That’s never been done. There have been studies done on Indigenous fatherhood, but nothing in regard to maternal health.”
As a father himself, Bruno feels a deep personal connection to the work. “When you look at health research, it’s very often deficit-oriented, where they’re almost reinforcing negative stereotypes. For us, we wanted to stay away from the negative and say, ‘You know what, there are great fathers, there are great Indigenous fathers, they’re doing great jobs, here’s their story.’”
Not only has ENRICH provided a space for meaningful research, but also, Bruno said, his supervisors have offered a continuation of the support he felt as an undergrad: “They, plus everyone else in ENRICH, have been a great support for me.”
Building an Indigenous foundation on campus
His time at the university has also allowed Bruno to grow in another way: as a model for other people from his community looking to post-secondary education, showing that there’s a place for them on campus.
Bruno explained that finding a place for himself wasn’t easy when he was the only Indigenous student in the room: “When I was in Red Deer, I was the only Indigenous person in every class I went to. I was always looked at as the expert. The first thing I would say in class was, ‘I’m not the expert here. I’m learning as well.’ But you get pigeonholed into that role.”
But in the Faculty of Native Studies, he wasn’t alone. Not only could he study Cree and learn the history of his home community and the larger histories of Indigenous people, but he could also build a foundation in an Indigenous space on campus. That experience was something he brought forward as the student member on the steering committee for the Building Reconciliation Forum held at the U of A in September 2016.
“When you go to an institution like this, or across Canada, one thing you rarely see is Indigenous faculty, Indigenous support services, Indigenous administration. We’re trying to get that representation out there so that other Indigenous people know that this can be a safe place for them. That’s why I think native studies is so great. This is a safe space for Indigenous people.”
To help build that same kind of space across campus, Bruno is now working with other graduate students to form an Indigenous graduate students’ association. With only a hundred or so Indigenous grad students on campus, he hopes that network will provide a place for students to come together to support each other, just as Bruno found support as an undergrad.
Bruno’s sister is now a student at the U of A as well. After seeing his success, she’s decided to return to school too so she can build a better life for her own children as well—something that makes him quietly proud.
“It wasn’t my goal to be a role model for everybody, but it feels like other people see me do it, so they think, well, I can do it too.”