This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
There was nowhere left to smudge.
This was a few years back, after Dalhousie University tore down its Indigenous Students’ Centre during campus renovations; a temporary location had no place for the ceremonial burning of sweet grass, sage, tobacco or cedar, and left some Indigenous students feeling adrift, their needs invisible.
Aaron Prosper, a Mi’kmaw student who had lived most of his life on Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni reserve, was just in his second year then. But in his new role as the Indigenous students’ representative on campus, the responsibility to fix the problem fell to him.
And so Mr. Prosper won his people a place to smudge. And then he won the permanent installation of the Mi’kmaq flag on campus. It flies there today next to the flags of Canada and Nova Scotia. And then he won a bid to become president of Dalhousie’s Student Union, making history last spring as the first Mi’kmaw student to hold that position.
Gently but firmly, Mr. Prosper is steering an increasing shift toward not just embracing but honouring Indigenous culture in his adopted academic community, which has willingly given him its ear. The effects of this have rippled far beyond campus borders and have made the 22-year-old an unofficial but highly sought guide on reconciliation efforts throughout Nova Scotia.
Richard Florizone, president of Dalhousie University, has taken to introducing Mr. Prosper, who studies neuroscience, as “Canada’s future prime minister.”
“When I say that, I believe it,” Mr. Florizone said in a recent interview. “Aaron exemplifies the unlimited potential of Indigenous youth in Canada. I see an individual who has the intellectual capacity, who has the character, to be among the best leaders in this country. You just have to … observe what he’s achieved and you’ll believe.”
Some of those achievements are concrete – literally, in the case of a new flag pole and the Mi’kmaq Grand Council Flag being carefully negotiated and then installed with a celebration on campus. Mr. Prosper launched the process with Dalhousie’s senior administration not long after they met about the smudging issue.
“I said with some frustration that Dal needs to do more to recognize where they’re from and the land they sit on, and engage with the Indigenous community here,” Mr. Prosper recalled. At the time, the Mi’kmaw flag was raised annually on campus for the Mi’kmaw Mawio’mi, or powwow. But it was taken down afterwards.
“It’s small, but you need to do that,” Mr. Prosper recalls saying when he recommended a permanent flag. Not long after, in 2016, the institution accepted his advice.
While the flag is perhaps the most symbolic example of Mr. Prosper’s influence here, his intangible efforts have been just as impactful. Those include his willingness, often at the peril of his own jammed schedule, to sit with just about anyone with a desire to ask questions about Indigenous culture.
“If anyone is in a place to learn about these things, I never want to look down on them. Reconciliation is all about being friends,” Mr. Prosper said. “One of the most important things to remember when you’re Mi’kmaq is your inherent responsibility … to represent your community in a positive way.
“And by remembering that, you’ll have influence on and shape the next generations,” he said. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it so that it helps the community … and makes people feel empowered.”
When Mr. Prosper arrived at Dalhousie, he had never lived away from Eskasoni. He was surrounded by a tight-knit family with strong cultural values and learned to speak Mi’kmaq at home and next door with his grandparents, whom he visited each school day at lunch.
As a freshman on campus with plans to one day attend medical school, Mr. Prosper found himself alone, immersed in an unfamiliar culture and full of questions. “How do you get through this living so far from where you grew up and where you knew the language and culture,” he wondered. “How do you move away from that and, at the end of the day, still be able to practice it?”
It was figuring out how to preserve meaningful traditions for himself – not political ambition – that led Mr. Prosper to step toward public service and a means of elevating Indigenous youth in general. He has since etched out a role for himself that has grown beyond student leadership. As he prepares to graduate next spring, many are hinting to Mr. Prosper that it is essential he continue to have some form of public presence.
“He shows talent where it is needed most and that is in leadership in this community,” said Dr. Ron Stewart, a former N.S. health minister, professor emeritus at Dalhousie and a recipient of the Order of Canada.
He praised Mr. Prosper for doing “a great deal in a very diplomatic way to raise issues of Indigenous rights” at Dalhousie. Canadians, Dr. Stewart said, stand to gain much from Mr. Prosper in the future.
“I have learned a tremendous amount about the Indigenous issues facing his community and, more importantly to me, the Indigenous issues that we have never fully addressed in this country," he said.