In 1976 Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr. helped turn the sod for the construction of the College of Cape Breton, and in doing so, he symbolically laid the cornerstone for establishing a home for Mi’kmaw students’ post-secondary education.
In 1980 the first Mi’kmaw students attended the College, and in each successive year, Mi’kmaw students continue to come to study and graduate.
In the 1980s, Indigenous faculty members Sr. Dorothy Moore and Murdena Marshall worked with Dr. Stephanie Inglis, Dr. Charles Mac Donald Humanities Department chair, to establish Native Studies courses at what was now the University College of Cape Breton (UCCB). Increasing Indigenous student enrollment and led to the development and creation of an academic Concentration and Major in the discipline of Mi’kmaq Studies.
In the 1990s, Mi’kmaq Studies faculty joined the Department of Heritage and Culture. This “Mi’kmaq Initiative” of the early 1990s was conceived by the late Grand Keptin, Alexander Denny in consultation with the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, Mi’kmaw communities, educators, and students, to create a Mi’kmaq Studies program to provide services for the students, and blend Mi’kmaw ways of knowing into the university curriculum.
With the addition of new department members, Eleanor Johnson and Joe B. Marshall, and with the assistance of Mi’kmaq language specialists from the community, the academic discipline of Mi’kmaq Studies courses were set in two streams: language/culture and governance/history.
In 1998, UCCB established the Mi’kmaq College Institute (MCI) to broaden the offering of Mi’kmaq and Indigenous courses, programming and support at the university. That year also saw the opening of the L’nu Resource Centre (LRC) as a repository of academic and research documents related to Mi’kmaw history, culture, tradition, and language.
One of the proudest milestones in Mi’kmaw education was the development of the Integrative Science program and Dr. Cheryl Bartlett’s 2002 Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Integrative Science based on the collaborative efforts of Dr. Bartlett and Murdena and Albert Marshall.
By July 1, 2010, the MCI had evolved into Unama’ki College, aiming to enhance Mi’kmaw educational opportunities at CBU. Also, to broaden its horizon as it reaches out to Indigenous students nationally and internationally.
To fulfill this mandate, the Department of Indigenous Studies was formed. It offers Mi’kmaq Studies and Integrative Science/ Toqqa’tu’ki Kjijitaqnn courses, many of them in Mi’kmaw communities. These “In-Community” courses have expanded to include offerings across Mi’kma’ki, providing more Mi’kmaq students with access to post-secondary education.
Also, in 2010, Dr. Keith Brown was named the first occupant of the Purdy Crawford Chair. The chair promotes interest among Canada’s Indigenous peoples studying business at the post-secondary level, and undertakes pure and applied research specific to Indigenous communities. The Chair will focus attention and research efforts on the Membertou Business Model, Unama’ki Partnership Model, and national and international comparative business analysis.
May 1, 2012, saw the official opening of the primary centre for Mi’kmaq language research at CBU, the Kji-Keptin Alexander Denny L’nui’sultimkeweyo’kuon, under the direction of linguist Dr. Stephanie Inglis. In conjunction with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK) and the Nova Scotia Department of Education, the lab has as its mandate Mi’kmaq linguistic research and development and delivery of language courses for non/semi-speakers of Mi’kmaq.
The collaborative partnership between Mi’kmaw communities and Unama’ki College has developed a successful model for Indigenous post-secondary education in Canada. The graduation of over 1000 Indigenous students has established Unama’ki College as a provider of quality post-secondary education and support for the next generation of Indigenous leaders.
Unama’ki College continues to support all Indigenous students under the leadership of Dean Laurianne Sylvester, a Mi’kmaw woman, mother, and kiju from Membertou First Nation. Laurianne has a deep background in Western education and leadership and her traditional learnings and community knowledge to draw upon as she leads the organization into the future.