Ryerson breaks ground with First Nations Grads

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By Jonathan Spicer

Teresa Migwams was so inspired by Ryerson’s public administration program, she nearly became chief of her reserve. After taking the year-long certificate program, she felt she had the confidence and knowledge to lead her community. “I didn’t win, but this course made me want to run for chief,” Migwams, 38, said from her office in Whitefish Lake First Nation, about 29 kilometres west of Sudbury, Ont. “It really enlightened me in understanding government policy.”

Migwams and 27 others were the first-ever aboriginal graduates to receive a Ryerson certificate in a public administration program designed for native leaders last June. The distance education program targeted aboriginal public sector employees and taught them management skills. They also studies such courses as Canadian politics and policy. Migwams has been the director of finance for Whitefish Lake since 1986 and was recently made executive director – a promotion she is eager to take. She credits her success in part to Carla Cassidy, the program’s administrator. “[Cassidy] is just awesome in opening my eyes in understanding Canadian government,” Migwams says, adding she has recommended the program to the other aboriginal leaders. Valerie Benson, who also graduated from the program last year, echoes Migwams’ praise:”[She] is kinds of like everybody’s aunt, always patting you on the back and suggesting how to study.”

Last December, Benson became the regional co-ordinator for the new Aboriginal Cancer Care Unit in Sudbury, Ont. The unit is part of Cancer Care Ontario. Benson has been busy developing a strategy for dealing with aboriginals affected by cancer. She says public administration in aboriginal communities is important and interesting work, but admits she “sort of stumbled into it.” “I never thought I’d be here,” she says, “but when I saw what [the work] involves, it makes perfect sense.” Joanne Smoke, executive director of the Ogemawahj Tribal Council in Rama First Nation and a graduate, says she too has been recommending the program because of its unique approach. “Legislation applies in a different way on First Nations and we have to know how to apply it for our own right,” she says from the reserve near Orillia, Ont. “The course has to be from the aboriginal perspective.” Smoke says her council services six First Nations in the Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay area and brings their concerns to different levels of government. “You’ve got to know how to play the game and this [program] give you the tools,” she says.

Smoke points to a recent reverse discrimination case on one of the reserves involving the hiring of firefighters. She had just returned from a course on human rights and was freshly armed with constitutional information, she says. She immediately called a tribal council meeting to let then know their constitutional rights. “We know that [First Nations] have the right to hire who we want, but the public doesn’t necessarily know this,” she says, adding the public sector is responsible for many jobs on reserves. “In First Nations there is no reverse discrimination,” Smoke says. “[Historically], we’ve been one of the most oppressed.” Nearly all of last year’s graduates are now studying for their advanced certificate, the second level of the program. The First Nations Technical Institute, an aboriginal owned and operated education and training facility, helps to provide the program.

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