It is funny how economics plays a key role in our lives. Before heading off to university, I knew I wanted to help people so I thought about medicine. However, I was talking with people in the community who said the best way to help people is through business.
So I started off in an administration and business program. By second year I had changed my major to economics. I knew we would be building an economy in the North, and thought if we had a strong economy we would be able to do anything. I took 26 economics courses, which the university said was more than anyone had done in the past. I really wanted to understand all aspects of an economy, from banking to development. One of my favourite courses was World Economies, in which we would have guest finance ministers in from different governments in the world each week.
A consistent observation made by economists and finance ministers is that the greatest investment a people can make when building a strong economy is to invest in their own people. In other words, education, training and human resources are key to a successful economy. You must build your labour force from unskilled to semi-skilled and skilled labour, and build a good pool of professionals and managers. This is something we have embraced as a Nation in many aspects – CSB Post Secondary Programs, Adult Education, Regional Vocational Centre, Niskamoon and CHRD.
It is amazing how sometimes we will be presented with opportunities to improve things around us. In terms of education, some of the superintendents of the elite middle and secondary schools in the country have asked to be paired with our schools. In pairing, their administrators and teachers would share resources, experience and the approaches that have made them and their students successful. In exchange their students and staff would be educated on Aboriginal issues. Most of these people are the future leaders of Canadian society, and they will go through school and life with little exposure to Aboriginal people or culture.
I was in New York City’s Financial District about a year ago, when a former CEO of a large corporation told me he now heads up a foundation to help children from groups who would normally not attend Ivy League schools. He said he works with children and their parents, and he would like to work on getting Aboriginal children into these schools.
The foundation works with children at an early age, and starts bringing them to some of the best universities in the world to take courses over the summers. The parents learn how to work with their children to achieve their goals. The idea is to break the barriers down, and have a generation of Aboriginal students graduating from these schools to not only inspire others to succeed but also to be valuable resources within their Nations.
After graduating with my economics degree, I applied to law school. But it wasn’t because I wanted to practice law: The teacher for my philosophy of law class had told me that those who understand the rules of society have the ability to change them for the better.
I thought about the way the laws and rules of society seemed to continually discriminate against Aboriginal peoples all over the world to keep them in a vulnerable state. There are 370 million Indigenous peoples in the world, and the vast majority of them live in poverty with little or no rights.
In Canada, we look at the standard of living in our communities, the state of our education system, our health care system, our roads and infrastructure. Our economic development and access to government services are still below the standards of the non-native municipalities often right next door. There is still systemic discrimination and policies within the government services and programs to not include Aboriginal communities or groups in accessing standards that other people in the country have on a regular basis.
While I attended one of the best law schools in country, I and other Aboriginal students faced discrimination. There were some professors who felt we should not be allowed into their classes. We worked hard, and changed the content in a number of the law courses to include Aboriginal materials, and put representatives on the boards that interviewed and selected the new professors. We fought to change the standards around us using more honey than vinegar.
I remember when I met South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I asked if he would have done anything different in his fight against apartheid. He said he might of used a bit more honey than vinegar. It is true that when dealing with people who support positions that are unjust or violate the fundamental rights of others, we have a tendency to get upset. It would be difficult to say how things would have unfolded in South Africa with other approaches however there were losses of many lives and the imprisonment of many of his people on their road to justice and freedom.
After graduating from law school, I took a job as the first Regional Justice Coordinator. I loved travelling through the communities to see what we could do to build a justice system that would better serve our Nation. At the time, we did not have a 20-year justice agreement with good funding so I worked on preparing a foundation on which to build programs and services.
A few years later, I received a call from the University of Arizona asking me to come to a new Masters of Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program they were starting. So I took a year off of work and went to see how tribes like the Navajo, Hopi and Apache were approaching justice, education and other services within their Nations.
Soon after, I was asked to teach classes at the university as well, and to work on the development of a number of programs to the 22 Indian tribes in Arizona. The University sent me to work in Australia and Hawaii. I also worked on court cases or negotiations for Aboriginal people in Nicaragua, Belize, Brazil, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan and many other countries.
I realized a personal dream of going a number of times to the United Nations and other places in the world to help people. I took part in the drafting of international conventions, preparing arguments before supreme courts and governments, and spoke with many world leaders. To me it was realizing a dream of wanting to help people in whatever way I could.
While in Arizona, I was asked to help Vine Deloria Jr., a renowned native leader and writer, teach an advanced treaties class. He is someone that Time magazine had called one of the most important thinkers of the last 100 years.
We became good friends. He told me his dream when he was young was to be able to go to college and to get married but he could afford to do neither because he came from a poor community. He joined the military to save enough money to go to college. After college, he took a job that gave him enough money to afford to get married and have a family.
When Deloria Jr. left his reserve and through his first college degree, he had difficulty writing but he continued to work at it. Eventually, he wrote 28 books – books that challenged what had been written about native people for hundreds of years.
So whenever you go to college or university do not worry if you are not as good as the other students in math, writing or whatever you are in class with them. People who have made incredible differences in peoples’ lives have been probably in the same situation as you, and continued to work hard to achieve their goals.
So, if there are some words of advice I can offer in terms of career choices, it’s that you should not underestimate yourself as you can build whatever skills you want to achieve. It is never too late to start something. A job or career can help you attain your dreams but it does not make you who you are. Do not exhaust yourself trying to do the impossible but excel at the possible. Respect, community and kind acts can change everyone’s world for the better, and that what comes from within people will respond to.
If participants take something away from the Second Annual Career Fair it should be that now is the time to achieve your dreams. You can make a difference no matter what you choose to do in life, and it is never too late.