Melissa Gus, mother Maggie, sister Agnes and aunties Gail Gus and Eileen Haggard dance during ceremonies that honored Melissa at the Canada Post office in Port Alberni on Dec. 12.
In a ceremony that took place at the new Canada Post office on Johnston Rd. on Dec. 12, Melissa Gus, a Nuu-chah-nulth student, received a rare honor. She became the recipient of a 2007 Aboriginal Education Incentive Award from Canada Post.
Only three such awards were given in the region this year, and only eight Canada-wide.
The awards program is part of Canada Post’s Progressive Aboriginal Relations Program. Recipients are chosen by a jury and awards go to those who have been out of school for a year and who have decided to return to complete their education. They are given, not based on grade point average, but on the personal challenges that had to be overcome to return to school.
Applicants must submit an essay outlining those challenges.
Melissa’s essay discussed what it was like for her to go to school as an aboriginal person in the school district and on Tseshaht territory. She bounced back and forth between the two, she said, then dropped out when she was 15.
“I thought I was being really, really cool. I already had my life together. I could do anything,” she said rolling her eyes. “Little did I know,” Melissa said laughing. “No, that’s not true.”
It took some lessons in life to convince Melissa to return to pursue her adult Dogwood diploma, and some time to overcome her fear.
“I don’t know what was scaring me so much,” she now says with surprise. “I was fearful of going back to school, because I didn’t think that I was smart enough…. I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough to finish what I needed to finish, and what scared me the most was the mathematical part. I feared never being able to pass math.”
She said going back to school was life changing for her.
“People say there are so many doors open to you once you have an education, and you hear it and ‘Yah, yah, yah, I know. I already know.’” But working for a number of years and trying to advance, it finally hit home to Melissa that her lack of credentials was going to hold her back.
Melissa is now halfway through working for her final credit for her high school diploma. She said it is really important to her to get her Dogwood before her children receive theirs. Melissa has three children, ages 15, 13 and three. Her daughter is the eldest.
“I would like to say ‘Yes, I graduated, before any of my kids graduated.’”
“I had the opportunity to read Melissa’s submission and I was inspired when I read it,” said Canada Post manager Stephen Krasikow, who presented Gus with a $1,000 cheque on Dec. 12. “She is an inspiration and should be commended for all that she has achieved.”
In attendance for the ceremony were friends, family and well-wishers.
Richard Sam, William Sam, Sr. and Ken Sam, Sr. brought their drums to sing some family hinkeets songs for the occasion—a whale song and a George Gus song.
“I wasn’t expecting to be, but I was really emotional when we did the two songs. I had a really hard time trying not to cry,” Melissa told Ha-Shilth-Sa. “It felt really good and it was very moving.”
Melissa’s mother Maggie brought out the shawls for the women to dance. Joining Maggie and Melissa was sister Agnes and aunties Gail and Eileen.
“I wasn’t expecting to dance. I thought we were just going to sing. My mom pulled out her shawls,” said Melissa laughing, clearly pleased with the turn of events. “I said ‘Are we dancing?’ And she said ‘Yes, you can’t just sing the songs without dancing.”
Customers to the post office bringing letters and packages to mail were given a glimpse into Nuu-chah-nulth culture. Melissa’s husband Mark Jensen mingled and reported that those present were very pleased by the cultural component that was brought to the presentation.
Melissa’s final course of study is Family Life, and what she is learning has made her stop to think about her own path and the choices she’s made.
It discusses the mistakes that people make that sometimes limit the options for them in life, the things that make it that much harder to succeed, like being in a rush to get married and have children.
“I’m pretty much proof of what the book says not to do,” Melissa said good-naturedly. Though she says she is content with the decisions she’s made, she cautions her young children to choose a less difficult road.
“I’m really blessed to feel so educated,” said Melissa. “I was really surprised when I re-read the essay that I sent in for the award. At the end I said, ‘I’m a smart woman. I’m a smart Nuu-chah-nulth woman.’ You know, a lot of women don’t do that. Don’t admit that.”
She said it doesn’t matter what kind of education people have, “everybody, I feel, is smart. Just for the life that they lead, the struggles they have to go through. The small victories.
“You are learning. Your children are learning from our mistakes. I really hope that my daughter sees all that we’ve had to go through and wants more for her life.”
Melissa would like to continue with her education once she gets her diploma and perhaps pursue a career in child psychology or psychology in general.
“I’m not exactly ready to jump into it again real fast like I did this last time, but I’m making plans to do some preparations to go back full time again.”
She said she hopes to encourage others who haven’t graduated to go back and “just do it.”
“It’s so life altering and in a good way. I just can’t stress that enough.”
By Debora Steel