Paula Laing is Kanienke’ha’ka (Mohawk) from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and belongs to the Turtle Clan.
Sheridan’s Manager, Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support juggles many roles at top speed. She’s an educator, a confidante, and an advocate for Indigenous people within and outside Sheridan. Laing has worked in education throughout her life, spending many of those years supporting Indigenous students living both on and off reserve. She travels to Sheridan every day from her home in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, where she also plays an active community role.
Laing was driven to advocate for Indigenous challenges and barriers since her time at university. Her grandmother was a survivor of residential school and Laing witnessed and experienced first-hand the effect this had on her family across generations. Despite this painful history, Laing’s mother instilled in her daughter a deep pride of her Indigeneity as a young girl, and through her own passion inspired Laing to choose a career focused on advocating, supporting and empowering Indigenous communities, especially Indigenous youth. She was compelled to learn as much as she could about her culture, pursuing courses in Indigenous knowledge throughout her postsecondary education alongside her degree in social work and education.
“I knew I wanted to support and empower young Indigenous people so they will have what it takes to pursue their dreams.” – Paula Laing
Laing dedicated herself to her community upon graduation, becoming a drug and alcohol counsellor on her reserve, and then a teacher. “I knew I wanted to support and empower young Indigenous people so they will have what it takes to pursue their dreams,” she says. Laing worked as an educator and consultant for Six Nations schools and Brant County for 25 years, teaching at almost every school on the reserve, reaching out to youth and supporting students as they navigated complex challenges.
Her contributions to Six Nations also extend beyond the classroom. In 1998, Laing secured the funding and resources to establish the Aka:we Canoe Club on Six Nations of the Grand River as a way to reclaim a long-held cultural practice to her community while providing opportunities for young people to connect with their traditional roots and participate in a team-building sport. Laing created a summer camp for canoe club members and has guided them to competitions, including the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).
Gillian Kyle, Laing’s colleague at the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support, has known Laing her entire life and has witnessed first-hand her passion for supporting their community’s youth. “She truly lives and breathes for her students,” Kyle says. “She goes above and beyond for them, making herself available whenever her students need her.”
Laing joined Sheridan in 2014 to help establish the college’s first Aboriginal Initiatives Office, as it was then called, at the Trafalgar Campus. The Office was created as part of a three-year partnership with Mohawk College until early 2016, when it began to operate autonomously under Laing’s thoughtful guidance and the hard work of the Centre team. In the summer of 2016, the Office was renamed the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support. Laing has led the Centre’s team since its inception, which now includes Gillian Kyle, Research Assistant/Executive Assistant; Elijah Williams, Indigenous Initiatives Coordinator; Mokhu Sayeed, Co-op student; and Ruth Gaitskell and Catherine Beaver, Peer Mentors. In the three years since the Centre opened its doors at Sheridan, Laing and the team have welcomed over 3,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
Laing tirelessly advocates for opportunities, inclusion and empowerment for Indigenous students at Sheridan. She drives the Centre’s outreach programming, builds connections with other Sheridan departments and student programs, and works with the Faculties to better integrate Indigenous knowledge in curriculum. She also works with Sheridan’s finance and admissions team to facilitate the distribution of scholarships for Indigenous students.
“Paula is the perfect example of someone actively contributing to reconciliation.” – Gillian Kyle
At Sheridan and beyond, Laing is passionate in her role as an advocate and educator. “Paula is a perfect example of someone actively contributing to reconciliation,” says Kyle. “She takes every opportunity to form partnerships, build bridges, and raise awareness so that the non-Indigenous communities better understand the challenges Indigenous communities face.”
Laing recognizes the Centre’s important role as a place where Indigenous students can make connections, and she is humbled by the Centre’s success. Sometimes, just stepping into the Centre and meeting other Indigenous students can make a big difference for a student who may feel isolated. Laing regularly counsels students looking to learn more about their culture and traditions, and connects them with the appropriate resources. She also provides guidance and assistance to students who are planning to study at Sheridan with the support of third-party funding, which can often be a daunting system to navigate.
Laing believes that an empowering postsecondary experience for Indigenous students begins with making connections to their culture in their new community, and that is her priority when each new student comes through the Centre’s doors. “When I greet them, I often say, ‘Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you, and we’re so happy you’re here.”
Pictured at top of page: Paula Laing, Manager of Indigenous Learning and Support at Sheridan. Photo by Indigenous Initiatives Coordinator and Sheridan Photography alumnus Elijah Monroe.
Written by: Carolina Salcedo, Internal Communications Officer at Sheridan.