Carla Singer describes her journey through the Urban Secondary Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) over the last four years as being like a flower blooming.
“First it’s all crumpled up and then one petal at a time comes out,” she says. “Finally it starts to bloom and then, there’s your world. I did this — after all the struggles, I did it.”
Singer, who hails from Big Island Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, dealt with her share of thorns on the path to earning her Bachelor of Education degree. At times she questioned if she’d make it to convocation day, but the support of her professors and mentors in ATEP helped her persevere.
“They were there to help me,” she says. “They gave me advice, they supported me, they showed me how to do things in the right way. It’s like my second home here.”
This support began in Singer’s first year when Education faculty members realized more needed to be done at the institutional level to ensure speakers of Indigenous languages were encouraged to stay in their languages.
“I knew Carla came to ATEP with a Bachelor of Arts in Cree from the University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills [in St. Paul, Alberta]. I also knew that Cree was her first language,” says Dr. Evelyn Steinhaur, ATEP director and professor of educational policy studies. “When one of her professors, Dr. Randy Wimmer, reached out to me about some difficulty he thought Carla might be having in responding to written instruction, I knew we had to act immediately, and I also knew this was not Carla's issue – this was our issue.”
Steinhauer suggested Singer’s next exam be conducted orally in the Cree language, with Steinhauer serving as translator. This approach was a first for the Faculty, and resulted in Singer taking final exams orally and writing papers in Cree throughout the rest of her degree.
“For my people, the most important thing is our language because it’s depleting,” she says. “It’s sacred to me because I wouldn’t be speaking my language if I wasn’t an Indigenous person. I wouldn’t know my identity, and I would be lost.”
Along with the support Singer received from ATEP faculty and staff, she was motivated to succeed in order to be a role model for her children. When courses moved online in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, she balanced the challenges of remote learning with helping her children navigate their own lives and education.
Last year when her son struggled with online learning in his final year of high school, he turned to Singer for inspiration. “For him to graduate, he looked at me as a role model,” she says. “My kids have seen me struggle through life. From there, they understood that life is precious and they take it one day at a time.”
Sustaining the language for future generations
Singer’s plan for the future — the goal that has driven her to keep going — is to teach Cree to the next generation and help the language stay alive. During her degree, she completed two practicums where she gained experience teaching Cree to children in kindergarten through Grade 6.
“This was my dream — to come to university, to become a language teacher, to show that I am capable of teaching the language to our people who want to learn it,” she says. “I’m proud that I finished my education on my promise I made to my late father. If he was here, he would be proud of me.”
“Carla is ready to change the world, one student at a time!” says Steinhauer. “Our students need to hear, speak and communicate in the language and it is exciting to know that Carla will be there to ensure that this happens at the school she finds herself working in.”
As Singer prepares to cross the convocation stage, she does so knowing she has opened doors for students who come through ATEP after her — and she wants them to know they can walk through those doors with confidence.
“You can do this. You have the ability to do this,” she says. “You can talk in your language. You do not have to be scared to talk about who you are as an Indigenous person. You do not have to be shy. Just be yourself."