Building bridges

John Desjarlias among the Inuit art displayed at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S.

John Desjarlais among the Inuit art displayed at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S.

We all know someone who has that impulse to know how things work. They take things apart to see what makes them tick. They reassemble the items, not always according to the original design, seeking to improve functionality. They see things in a logical, progressive, orderly way.

John Desjarlais Jr. (BE’11)—the 2015 recipient of the USSU Young Alumni Excellence Award—is one of those people.

“I want to problem solve, to break things down,” Desjarlais explained. “I was just built that way. That’s the way I think.”

So it comes as no surprise that Desjarlais is an engineer—a maintenance engineer at Cameco Corporations’ Key Lake mine site, to be specific.

A Métis resident of Cumberland House, Sask., Desjarlais started down the path of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (often referred to as STEM) long before post-secondary school. “My family was a major influence. My father was my first role model, my biggest role model,” Desjarlais said. “I also had great educators, in secondary school right through post-secondary, great teachers in science, physics, biology. I had an environment to nurture the seeds and keep them growing.”

He began his formal pursuit of engineering with NORTEP-NORPAC—post-secondary programs for Northern Saskatchewan residents of Aboriginal ancestry—and later switched to Northlands College to obtain certification as a radiation environmental monitoring technician.

After working with Cameco for five years, Desjarlais felt it was the right time to go back to school, beginning his studies at the U of S College of Engineering.

While a student, Desjarlais discovered that students from rural and remote locations were struggling—both culturally and academically—and had a comparably high drop-out or fail rate. Instead of sitting idly by, he helped develop the Northern Administrative Student Association (NASA) to help bridge home life and the at times overwhelming university experience.

He also helped revitalize the Indigenous Students’ Society (ISC). As president, he brought in new policies and procedures that would allow the struggling student group to better serve the needs of the growing number of Aboriginal students on campus.

“We needed to rebuild the purpose and culture [of the ISC]. We got involved in Aboriginal Student Week, we hosted cultural events, and we built credibility with students and the university—with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”

Desjarlais continues to help students adapt to university life and promote study in STEM fields. He was an Alumni Namesake Mentor for the university’s Learning Communities, “mentoring the mentors who engage with students and help them transition during their first couple months” at the U of S. He is also an advisor for engineering students working on their capstone design project.

As chair of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan’s sub-committee on Aboriginal initiatives, Desjarlais helps fellow Aboriginal engineers bridge from student to working professional. “It’s great to have the support of the college, from people like Matt Dunn [Indigenous peoples initiatives coordinator in the College of Engineering] and an active engagement strategy.”

Now pursuing his master of business administration with the Edwards School of Business, Desjarlais is getting a rounded business perspective and sees endless opportunities for business and organizational development in Aboriginal communities and organizations.

True to his “fixer” nature, Desjarlais recognizes opportunities to improve things. “I could work with individuals or Bands or communities, bridging gaps and building capacity…structure, business proposals, pursuing potential sponsors… If that turns into a business opportunity, that would be fantastic.”

The power of positive people

Kendal Netmaker, founder and owner of Neechie Gear. photo submitted

Kendal Netmaker, founder and owner of Neechie Gear.
photo submitted

“The Native Oscars” is how Kendal Netmaker described the Indspire Awards, an annual gala to celebrate the significant contributions of Indigenous people in Canada. Netmaker was among this year’s 14 award recipients, receiving the Youth: First Nation award in Calgary, Alta. on February 27.

Netmaker (BEd’11, BA’11), a member of the Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan, is founder of Neechie Gear, a Saskatoon-based clothing company that has goals more lofty than putting stylish T-shirts and hoodies on the backs of young people. Neechie, Plains Cree slang for my friend, is a lifestyle brand that promotes positive living and actively supports members of the community.

The two primary ways Neechie promotes positive living—enlisting young athletes, actors and musicians to serve as role models, and providing educational bursaries and financial support for young people to participate in sport—have roots that go back to Netmaker’s childhood.

“I was fortunate growing up to have three people who were tremendous influences in my growth, allowing me to take advantage of opportunities and let me take my own risks,” Netmaker said. To no one’s surprise, mom tops the list of role models. “Mom was always there for us kids.” An uncle, who was an elder, served as a great mentor and male influence. And Netmaker’s grandmother, who somehow escaped the fate of being sent to residential school, ensured Netmaker and his three younger sisters were surrounded by his traditional First Nations culture growing up.

Another influence—a simple but very deliberate act of kindness—proved to shape Netmaker, and Neechie Gear’s mission, more than he initially realized.

Netmaker-video-image

Watch Netmaker’s story

An elementary school classmate invited Netmaker to join the town’s soccer team. Without the funds to pay for registration or the means to get to town and back home to the Sweetgrass First Nation, Netmaker had to decline. The friend’s parents offered to pay the fees and drive Netmaker. “Before that, I had to force my younger sisters to play sports. Our community didn’t have a gym yet, so I would drag them outside. I wanted to play, so I jumped at the opportunity.”

Eventually, the same family gave Netmaker’s mother a car, opening up more possibilities for Netmaker and his sisters.

Netmaker went on to play volleyball at Keyano College for two years before transferring to the U of S College of Education. While some find the university overwhelming at first, Netmaker said, “I was used to throwing myself into uncomfortable situations by then, so I was able to make friends early on. And thankfully there are places like the Aboriginal Student Centre where I felt included. Everywhere I would go, I would see familiar—or maybe not familiar—Aboriginal faces that made me feel included at the university.”

Netmaker played volleyball more recreationally while at the U of S. “My knees were pretty shot,” he explained. Although, maybe his knees were in better shape than he lets on. “I did win some money in competitive tournaments, which helped pay some bills.”

He also won some money to develop his clothing-line concept into a full-fledged business, winning both the Aboriginal Youth Idea Challenge and the i3 Idea Challenge conducted by the U of S Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence. “I never thought I would start a company. There were these cool business competitions so I thought, ‘Why not just give it a shot.’ I had an idea to create a clothing brand that would give back to kids. So I showed up, went to workshops, was dedicated to learning, developed a business plan and pitched it. I didn’t have a business background, so [winning] gave me tremendous confidence.”

He hasn’t looked back since. Neechie Gear has grown as a brand that offers positive role models for young people, provides bursaries for both high school and post-secondary students, and donates five per cent of its net profits to organizations like KidSport and the White Buffalo Youth Lodge so young people can play sports.

With the help of his fiancé and “number one supporter,” Rachel Thomas (BEd’13), and “too many mentors and supporters to name,” Netmaker has amassed an impressive collection of awards and accolades, including an ABEX award, being named one of CBC Saskatchewan’s Future 40, the 2015 National Youth Aboriginal Entrepreneur Award, an Alumni of Influence Award from the U of S College of Arts and Science, and, of course, the Indspire award.

Netmaker is grateful for the recognition, viewing it as an opportunity to share his story and be a positive role model. His advice: “Hard work pays off. You never know what opportunity will come next. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in you.”

U of S alumni and faculty who are past recipients of an Indspire Award (formerly National Aboriginal Achievement Award):
1995 Rev. Ahab Spence (D), BA’52, LLD’64
1996 Maria Campbell
1999 Dr. Alika LaFontaine, MD’06
1999 The Hon. Lillian Dyck, BA’66, MA’70, PhD’81
1999 Joseph Adams (D)
2001 Freda Ahenakew (D), BEd’79, LLD’97
2001 Harold Cardinal (D), LLB’95
2003 Matthew Dunn, BE’04, MSc’10
2005 Fauna Kingdon, MPAcc’08
2006 James Henderson
2007 Marie Battiste
2007 John (Jack) Poole (D), BE’54
2008 The Hon. Joseph Handley, BEd’68, MEd’70
2009 Rev. Stan Cuthand, LTh’44
2010 Donald Worme, LLB’85
2012 Janet Smylie
2013 Winston Wuttunee
2013 Gabrielle Scrimshaw, BComm’10
2014 Rita Bouvier, BEd’75, MEd’84