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|Established as Toronto's first public college in 1966, Centennial College offers programs in business, communications, community and health studies, science and engineering technology, general arts, hospitality and transportation.|
Ajay Bagwe is a real nature boy. Ever since he was a young lad growing up in the teeming metropolis of Mumbai, Bagwe has relished the opportunity to get out of the city and commune with the environment. You could say it feeds his soul.
“I used to travel up in the mountains of India and enjoy returning to the natural elements that surround us. Sometimes we forget where we come from as a people,” says Bagwe wistfully.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he has an affinity for Canada’s Aboriginal First Nations. This spring, he took the opportunity to travel with a group of Centennial College students to the Walpole Island reservation in southwestern Ontario, spending eight days living with the inhabitants and experiencing their culture first-hand.
Even though Walpole Island is a short distance from the auto manufacturing capital of Detroit and the petro-chemical hub of Sarnia, it remains a pristine sanctuary used by Aboriginals living on both sides of the international border.
“About 90 per cent of the biodiversity you’ll find in Canada is located on the island,” Bagwe says of its ecosystem. “Nature has given so much to that island.”
Bagwe was awestruck by another find in nearby Dresden: the house of “Uncle Tom,” which was in reality the home of Josiah Henson, the former American slave whose life story was the inspiration for the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The house has long served as the terminus of the “underground railroad,” the secretive route escaped U.S. slaves walked to become free men and women in Canada.
“I didn’t know about Black history in Canada, but I can certainly relate to the desire to express yourself freely here,” says Bagwe. How he came to Canada himself is a story worth recounting.
Keen to augment his degree in biotechnology, Bagwe found Centennial’s unique International Business Management graduate certificate program and applied to it from his native India. The program allows individuals from various academic backgrounds to gain the global business knowledge necessary to leverage their career prospects. Upon successful completion, graduates are eligible to pursue the Certified International Trade Professional (CIPT) professional designation.
To his delight, he was accepted right away and the visa process was surprisingly easy, too. When his plane touched down in Toronto last August, Bagwe was immediately struck by the land that he had heard so much about.
“I have to admit I was disappointed with the flatness of Ontario, having been a mountain trekker back home,” says Bagwe. “But the air felt pure and fresh, and it held a lot of promise.”
Bagwe eased into his studies quickly, and was delighted to see quite a few Indian students in Centennial’s classrooms. It didn’t take the affable young man long to make friends among his classmates and professors.
He had heard about Centennial’s Global Citizenship and Equity Learning Experiences (GCELEs), which are offered to selected students who are keen to immerse themselves in another culture. As part of the selection process, Bagwe wrote an impassioned essay about his desire to learn about other societies. To his surprise, he was picked to travel to Walpole Island this spring, with expenses paid for by the college.
“Aboriginals don’t accept strangers easily, but our teachers had formed long-standing relationships with the people of Walpole Island, so we were warmly welcomed,” Bagwe says.
The goal of the eight visiting students was to empower Aboriginal women by sharing their knowledge of business practices and other related topics. Bagwe was struck by how tribal society is organized: it favours a flat, equitable power structure where everyone has an equal voice in decisions, rather than being hierarchical.
“These people speak slowly and takes pauses to think about what they’re hearing. It’s a society that encourages respect for others. I’ve incorporated that philosophy in my own life. I speak slower now and listen more carefully.”
Bagwe listened to 90-year-old band elder Jenny Blackbird recount stories of Aboriginal struggles. To his ear, the Anishinaabe language sounded familiar to his own native tongue he used on a continent on the other side of the planet.
“The pronunciations are similar, especially the vowels. Drums are important in both cultures. Both cultures seek harmony with nature. And there’s a feast in the Aboriginal community on the tenth day after a death, just as in India.”
Blackbird told the students that the native language was lost more than 50 years ago, when the government insisted Aboriginal children should be forced to attend distant residential schools where they could be “assimilated” with white culture and discard the native way of life.
The destructive social policy had almost accomplished the stated goal, when the government reversed its shameful practice in the 1970s and closed the residential schools. Today, tribes are slowly relearning their traditions, including their languages, to inform its next generation of youth.
“It was hard to do, since they never wrote anything down as a record. Theirs is a spoken language,” Bagwe points out. At the same time, there’s immense interest in entrepreneurial skills among the women at Walpole Island, eager to become self-employed and self-reliant. Bagwe lectured on the business practices he himself had learned at Centennial, lessons that were well received by the residents.
“One woman I met wanted to start her own gas station on the island. She recognized that the lone station there is charging too much money and is gouging the local residents,” says Bagwe, who is pleased his talk inspired the local residents. Still, he felt more enriched than any of his pupils.
“We went there to give them something, but we came back with much more than we left behind.”
For more information about Centennial College’s School of Business, visit: www.centennialcollege.ca/business