In May 2007 I completed all of the requirements to graduate from SFU with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. Convocation was in June of that year, and I remember some of the conversations I had with my fellow graduands (and their parents) as I was roaming around the AQ trying to find the pick-up location of my degree parchment and regalia. The mood in the AQ that afternoon was cheerful, and there were lots of smiles and laughter as we acknowledged each other for having completed our degrees. There was one question, however, which came up often and which invariably caused the smiles and laughter to dim momentarily. That question was, of course: now what?
Everyone wanted to know what others were planning to do with their education. I remember one classmate’s mother asking me (as my mother had asked me many many times): “what sort of job are you going pursue with a degree in Political Science?" Every Liberal Arts student (be they a Poli-Sci, Philosophy, History, Humanities, Sociology, Anthropology, Gender Studies, or (gasp!) an English major) has confronted this question, and most – if anything like myself – have struggled to answer it. What the person asking me this question didn’t know, but which made her question seem to me at the time even more difficult to answer, was that the areas I was really interested in – and which I had studied the closest – were Canadian Politics (with a focus on First Nations issues and the Canadian Constitution) and Political Philosophy.
I think most Liberal Arts students answer this question in roughly the same way, which is to describe the skill set we had honed as an Arts student and to recite the promise that a great many jobs will require people with those very skills. This is not as precise a response as many parents would like, nor is it totally satisfying for students either. However at that time it was, at least for me anyways, the best I could do.
It was partly because of this uncertainty that I decided to pursue a graduate degree. I was very fortunate to be awarded the BC Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Scholarship that year, which provides one student in BC with funding to attend a University program in a Commonwealth country of their choosing. I chose to study in the UK, and spent 2007-2008 in London completing a Master’s program in Political Theory. When my program ended I returned to Canada. I have found steady employment since university, in the Federal Public Service, and I have been able to apply the skills and knowledge that I acquired as a student by working on Aboriginal issues. Looking back, 5 years after graduation, I have a much better sense of the career options that were open to me when I graduated from SFU in 2007; career options which are open to all students in search of a career where they can work on Aboriginal issues.
And so, my aim in this piece is twofold: i) to share my journey with SFU’s indigenous student body and ii) to pass along what I have learned about career options for anyone interested in Aboriginal issues.
My parents impressed on me, from a very early age, the importance of doing well in school and pursuing a post-secondary education (be it vocational or academic). Perhaps because of their insistence that it was so important, I never took school very seriously. I routinely refused to complete assignments, pay attention in class, or to demonstrate even the slightest deference to my teachers. When I moved from Grade 7 to Grade 8, and gained the autonomy of a high school student with multiple classes to attend each day, with different teachers and short breaks in-between sessions, I found myself ditching more classes than I attended. As anyone who has tried this knows, after enough voluntary truancies the school administrators takes it upon themselves to do the job for you. Though I cycled through a few different schools between grades 8 and 9, ultimately I was ejected enough times that there weren’t many options for me. And so, for a large portion of my high school years I was not, in fact, in high school. I got by with a part time job at a major grocery store chain in Surrey, working in the bakery department. The work was stable and steady - but boring. The most exciting parts of my day either involved the undercover security guards catching shoplifters, or those occasions where I would mix 300 loafs of bread and forget to add the yeast.
I worked in the bakery department between the ages of 15 and 18, and for most of that period I didn’t worry much about not having completed high school nor did I think very hard about my future. My parent’s worried about me though. After years of what I can only describe as nagging, but which my mother would describe as positive encouragement, I agreed to enroll at the Guildford Learning Centre in Surrey to attempt to complete the requirements for an Adult Graduation Certificate. The Adult Graduation Certificate is a high school equivalency diploma which is sometimes colloquially referred to as a GED. Having been out of the classroom for so long, I quickly realized that there was a lot I had missed out on. As I cycled through the shortened courses, which comprise the Adult Graduation program, the areas I found most interesting were topics taught in Social Studies including how the Canadian Government is structured, how it makes decisions, and specifically how it has treated the original inhabitants of Canada.
The history of Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples was particularly interesting to me because I am part Aboriginal. My grandmother is an Ojibway woman from a small First Nation community in Manitoba. Up until this point, I hadn’t really thought a lot about that part of my background nor had I interacted much with Aboriginal people. As a child, we would visit my Grandparent’s in Manitoba almost every summer where part of our diet consisted of traditional foods, their farm was decorated with Aboriginal symbols (including a great many dream catchers) and I would often hear her speaking Ojibway. But apart from that, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture had not been a big part of my life growing up in Surrey. The opportunity to learn more about the history of my grandmother’s culture and people sparked a new interest in me to continue learning. The instructors at the Guildford Learning Centre recognized this renewed interest and helped me to complete the Adult Graduation program in 8 months. They also encouraged me to enroll at Kwantlen University-College (KUC) for some courses in Political Science, History, and Philosophy.
To pursue the kinds of studies I was interested in, KUC was my only option at the time because I had not completed the usual courses students complete as part of their high school education. The big universities, like SFU, were out of reach. However, once I completed 30 credits at KUC I could apply to transfer to SFU and my admission would be determined solely based on my KUC transcript. I took a suite of courses at KUC and met some amazing professors, each of whom encouraged me to continue my studies and to keep pursuing the research questions that interested me the most. After 3 terms at KUC I transferred to SFU and enrolled as a Political Science major.
While at SFU I took courses in Political Science, Philosophy, Humanities, English, and First Nations’ Studies. I received support from the Indigenous Student Centre and I worked as a Student Mentor with the Aboriginal University Prep-Program. SFU provided me with a great undergraduate experience. I had keen classmates, great professors, and the school provided me with some of my first work experiences – working as a Research Assistant in the Communications department, a Teaching Assistant in the Poli-Sci department, and as a Student Mentor with the Continuing Studies department.
After SFU I spent 12 months in the UK, where I studied Political Theory at the London School of Economics. My research at LSE focused on the issue of multiculturalism. Canada has a long and successful history with multiculturalism, first committing to its ideals (as a matter of federal policy) in 1971 and later, in 1982, enshrining its centrality to Canada in the Constitution. The Canadian experience with multiculturalism has not been shared everywhere, however. In Europe, many countries have struggled to establish a multiculturalism ethos. In fact, many European countries have abandoned multiculturalism altogether. Studying multiculturalism outside of Canada was, therefore, an opportunity to interact with writers and academics and classmates for whom multiculturalism was not an obviously desirable principle.
Some of the Canadians I met while studying at LSE made plans to move to Ottawa after graduation to look for jobs in the Federal Public Service. That seemed like a good idea to me, and so after returning to Canada and spending a few months back in BC I made my way to Ottawa. Once there, I wrote to approximately 30 different managers at 6 different departments. I got interviews with 4, job offers from 2, and accepted a position at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). For nearly 3 years I worked as a Policy Advisor on one of the most recent, and exciting, developments in Aboriginal affairs; namely, Aboriginal Consultation. I left AANDC 1 year ago for my current position: Senior Advisor, Aboriginal Affairs with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) in Toronto. In my current position I am responsible for ensuring that Aboriginal communities are consulted throughout the federal review of major resource and infrastructure projects in Ontario.
In the 4 years that I have been in the workforce I have learned a lot about what the job market looks like for students with an interest in Aboriginal issues. It is this knowledge that I want to pass along to the SFU indigenous student body.
Careers in Aboriginal Affairs
The past 30 years has seen a growing recognition of indigenous peoples rights, both internationally and domestically. In Canada, the rights of Aboriginal peoples were recognized and affirmed in 1982 in section 35 of the new Constitution. At the time, nobody knew what the full implications of this section would be. Nobody knew the full extent of activities which would find protection under section 35, and nobody knew what Courts would do when confronted with government legislation or administrative decisions which very clearly infringed those rights. Filling in these blanks became the responsibility of the Courts, and since 1982 there has been a large evolving body of case law on these questions. Some of the most recent developments are noteworthy here because many jobs have been created as a result.
In three landmark Supreme Court of Canada decisions known as (and involving the peoples of) Haida Nation, Taku River Tlingit First Nation, and Miksew Cree Free Nation the Court set out a new requirement for government’s (Fed and Prov) to consult Aboriginal communities before making any decisions which could potentially impact Aboriginal or Treaty rights. This requirement is known as the legal duty to consult. These cases had major implications for government’s, the private sector, and for Aboriginal communities. In the last 5 years Courts at all levels have enforced the legal duty to consult, and in so doing have created a whole new industry of employment for people wanting a career that involves working with, or for, Aboriginal people. Jobs in this field have been created in government, the private sector, and Aboriginal communities
There are thousands of government decisions made each year that now require consultation with Aboriginal communities. This has created jobs in many federal Department and provincial Ministries. Federally, this includes Natural Resources Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada, National Defense, Environment Canada, et. al. Provincially this includes the Ministries of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources, Transportation and Infrastructure, Energy and Mines and Natural Gas, et.al..
Both levels of government have jobs websites, and both have various Co-Op and recruitment programs for students.
The government decisions that require the highest level of consultation are often those that relate to major resource and infrastructure projects (e.g. pipelines, mines, oil and gas developments, roads, hydro dams, etc) and so private companies in each of these sectors have also created many positions. While the legal duty to consult is the responsibility of government, many private companies have come to recognize that the success of their projects often depend on securing a social license from those communities who will be impacted. There are Aboriginal Affairs positions now in nearly every resource company in the country.
There are useful job boards which have been created for Mining and for Oil & Gas careers, where these positions are posted. Also, sites like LinkedIn and Monster and Workopolis will post Aboriginal Affairs/Stakeholder Relations jobs quite regularly.
Aboriginal Communities have also created positions to respond to requests for Consultation, and to work with government’s and the private sector. While these positions are undoubtedly the most important, in that they are essential to ensure that Aboriginal rights are protected and that Aboriginal people receive fair compensation for any adverse impacts, many have struggled to find the necessary resources. One of the biggest challenges in this line of work is the lack of capacity within communities. That said, some have found the resources to create positions within the community and websites like Nationtalk and Charity Village have job boards where these are often posted.
Since making the decision to return to school, to complete my high school education, I have been tremendously lucky. I have been supported and encouraged by teachers and professors and the administrative support staff at each of the schools I attended. I’ve also been lucky to have found steady employment since graduation, and to have stumbled upon the explosion of career activity in the world of Aboriginal consultation. My aim here was to share the story of how I got to be where I am today, and to highlight some career options for students with a desire to work on Aboriginal issues. It is my hope that students with similar interests to my own will be, after reading this piece, better equipped to answer those probing questions (which seem to always be top-of-mind for parents) about their career prospects.