U of S alumnus and mobile giant co-founder to marry Bollywood actress

Rahul Sharma, co-founder and CEO of Micromax

Rahul Sharma, co-founder and CEO of Micromax

Rahul Sharma (BComm’95), the co-founder and CEO of Micromax, of one of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers that is based in India, is making headlines for something other than his business success—he’s set to marry famous Bollywood actress Asin Thottumkal.

Under Sharma’s leadership, Micromax has become the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the second largest market in the world.

Micromax has been named the Most Promising Company for the Next Decade by CNBC Awaaz and the Emerging Company of the Year 2011. Sharma’s achievements have earned him the Forbes Person of the Year in 2010, GQ Man of the Year (Excellence in Business) in 2013, and he was among the only four Indians in Fortune Magazine‘s Global Power List of 2014—Fortune’s ‘40 under 40’ list for 2014.

Read more about Micromax
Read more about Sharma and his pending nuptials

Truth and Reconciliation: U of S alumnus Cecil King recalls his residential school experience


“‘Bonnigi deh taadewin’ which literally means ‘the process of pushing the badness out of your heart.’ It seems to me that this is really what we should strive for.”
Cecil King


The following is an unedited, personal account of Cecil King’s (BEd’73, MEd’75) experiences in a residential school. It, along with the editor’s note, was originally published in The Manitoulin Expositor and is used here with permission. All rights belong to The Manitoulin Expositor.

One of the residential school survivor “lucky ones” recalls the experience
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Cecil King, an Odawa from Wikwemikong, has spent 50 years in education as a teacher, professor, researcher, consultant and teacher of teachers. Dr. King founded the Indian Teacher Education Program, University of Saskatchewan and was the first Director of the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, Queen’s University. He served as Head of the Indian and Northern Education Program, University of Saskatchewan and the Dean of the Saskatchewan Campus of the First Nations University of Canada. His language is his first love. He has taught Ojibwe at the University of Saskatchewan, Stanford University and the University of Alberta. He has developed Ojibwe Language Programs in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Chicago and California and has produced an 8,000 word Ojibwe dictionary.

Dr. King is Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University. He is the recipient of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee Medal, the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal and the 2009 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Education.

by Dr. Cecil King

Cecil King

I was one of the lucky ones. I survived residential school. However, I believe it had more to do with my schooling at home and in Buzwa School than in the residential school experience. I did not get on that big black bus that picked children up to go to Garnier Residential School until I was ready to start high school. I had passed the provincial Grade 8 entrance exams in Manitowaning. Liza Jane Pelletier, my Grade 8 teacher at Buzwa School, had made sure that I knew what was necessary to know to continue to high school. My grandmother had been a teacher and insisted that I learn English well at home.

We had had three caring, competent First Nations women teachers at Buzwa School: Christine Wakejijig, Rita Trudeau and Liza Jane. This was my experience with school teachers before meeting the Jesuits. There were many teachers in our community. My grandfather, John King, a skilled craftsman, had taught me how to make things and do manual labour. Many of these skills saved me at Garnier because the priests were notoriously inept at doing the things that were needed to keep a building as large as the school maintained and operating at full efficiency. I immediately became part of the Maintenance Department. This kept me busy in the building and out of the barns. This was a good thing because I hated farming. So I built things like a green house, and a tabernacle without any plans or instructions. I put on and took off storm windows on the four storey building. I made props for the concerts and operettas that we produced.

One winter Julius Neganijig, from Sheguiandah, and I made little white crosses and monuments to stand them on. This was our tribute to the little ones who died. Most of the kids who died while I was there died of TB. When Julius and I had finished the crosses, we had to take them to the cemetery up the hill and erect them at the graves that the brother had indicated with a rock. We did not put names on the crosses because we were not told who they were for. I never knew who was in the grave under the cross.

I learned the name of one of those who received one of my crosses. One year when we returned to the Island on the big black bus, we delivered the students to their homes. I remember the whole Ozawamique family was waiting by the side of the road. The bus driver stopped and Mr. Ozawamique asked for his daughter. The bus driver didn’t know anything but one of the nuns who was on the bus with us told the family that the little girl had died. I will never forget the look on the faces who had been waiting excitedly to welcome their little one back home.

Many students tried to run away from Garnier. Many were a long way from home. We had classmates from up the North Shore as far as Thunder Bay and as far south as Kanawake, Quebec. Being from a Catholic reserve was the major criterion for acceptance to the school. Of those who ran away while I was at the school, only one was successful. Others were caught. They were strapped, long and hard. Their hair was cut off.  They had to eat alone and all privileges were taken away. Most of these were little boys who were already lonesome and miserable.

The boys’ school and the girls’ school were only a few hundred yards apart. However, it was impressed upon us that it was a sin for us to go to the other school. Many of us had sisters at the school. We were not allowed to have any contact with them. What I remember most is the little girls’ faces pressed against the windows of the girls’ school when we went by on our walk on Thursday afternoons. Sometimes my sisters would be at the window but often they were not because there was a fight among the girls for the front places. Those glimpses were the only connection we had with our family during the school year.

At Buzwa School, I had not learned the need for the strap as a tool for learning. Our teachers had motivated us to learn with other means. At Garnier, it was assumed that appropriate behaviour would result from the appropriate sized strap being applied the appropriate number of times on the appropriate part of the boy’s anatomy. The punishment was applied until the boy cried out. If you cried out right away, it would stop. If you gritted your teeth and were defiant, the strapping went on and on.

Religion was the first class of the day. We were taught that we were sinners and had no hope of going to heaven. We had to be convinced that we were sinners so that the Church could save us. Every fall there was a 30-day retreat to expunge us of the involvement of our people in the murders of the priests at Midland and to convince us that the martyrdoms were our fault. We were told our ancestors were “les sauvages” and this was the proof.

I was lucky. I had learned that I was Odawa from my grandfather. His brother, Charlie King, still knew the old songs and led a drum group. My grandfather had taught me about the three brothers Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomie who together were the Anishnabek. Kokwehns, the traditional old lady who lived with us, had shown me what medicine plants to pick, how to make them into medicine and other practical things which our people had learned through living off the land. I was not prepared to hang my head when I was called “un sauvage.”

While we were all aware of the severe penalties for ignoring the rules and defying the priests, we had our own subculture which made life bearable. I learned to speak Ojibwe in the basement of the school. I found that my English skills did not make me popular with the other boys who for the most part came from communities where Ojibwe was still the first language. We developed a subculture which operated out of the basement, in Ojibwe. We had a system of barter where each of us exchanged the items taken from our place of work with someone else who had something we needed. Those working in the bakery had bread to barter for butter from those working in the creamery. The most prized trade good was the priests’ tobacco which a member of our crew would capture from the priests’ residence after the first call to the dining room ensured that the priests’ tobacco was unattended.

We found ways to adapt to the structured system of the residential school. We used our language as a means of passing plans without being detected. We used our natural trading skills to satisfy our individual wants and needs. After all, Odawa means “trader.” We used our knowledge of living off the land to assess the landscape of the residential school. We knew every nook and cranny and where everything was kept. We soon learned how to pick locks to get what we needed.

Life in Garnier Residential School was a balance of academic opportunity and making a life that we could live true to ourselves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth (Debwehwin)

“Debwehwin” is one of the Seven Grandfathers, the teachings of the Anishnabek. It is one of the core beliefs of the Anishnabe worldview. The First Nations students knew their truth.  Basil Johnson wrote ‘Indian School Days,’ which was discredited by the Jesuits and some academics. The truth of the students had to fit into a theory or it was discredited. When I told one researcher that I was not sexually assaulted in Residential School, she told me that I must be in denial. Another researcher interviewed me for hours but never used anything because I didn’t agree with his theory. It has been difficult to inject our varied stories into the dialogue. We are hopeful that our truth will now be part of Canadian history.

The Commission has recommended a national curriculum teaching all the school children in the country will learn about us. This is a noble endeavour. This has been my life’s work. I have been an educator for almost 60 years. A provincial superintendent of education, Mr. Mingay (I remember his name to this day!) gathered the Grade 12 students in Garnier and suggested career choices for us. He told me I would make a good teacher. This was a surprise because we had never been told what we would be good at except for a couple of boys whom the Jesuits thought might become priests. I took his advice and have been a teacher ever since.

I have seen important changes in the schooling of our children. I was a teacher of teachers at university for many years and found that when non-aboriginal teacher trainees learned our worldview and history from our perspective, they were more ready to teach our children. When you taught them that there were different ways of looking at the world, it opened their eyes to the issues we face to this day.

However, changing the school curriculum takes a long time. It will be another 20 years before the new curriculum about us has any impact on societal views. I have been involved in these changes. It is not enough. The most frustrating lack of knowledge which I have encountered has been among the bureaucrats in federal and provincial departments whose task it is to make policy about us or for us. The positions either have people who have had the same knowledge about our people since they joined the department 20 years ago and have hardened their views as a result or they are young with no experience with our people or interest in learning. I got very tired of having to re-educate bureaucrats at each meeting before we could get down to business. It would move the relationship ahead if we could meet with government people who might disagree with our position but who at least knew the basic facts about who we are.

Recommendation: Start the intensive re-education of Canadians not at the Kindergarten classroom but in the Cabinet Room with the prime minister and his cabinet followed by the deputy ministers and through the whole departmental staffs. Not to forget the clerks and frontline staff who meet First Nations, Innuit and Metis clients on a daily basis.

Reconciliation

There are many English words for reconciliation. Generally it means bringing two things or groups which have been disagreeing, together. The term is used for finances and there is even a legal definition relating to aboriginal rights and modern treaty negotiating. These meanings don’t deal with human feelings and experience. Reconciling people who have been estranged is a process. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided venues where pain and hurt could be revealed and acknowledged. Some victims have come face to face with their anger.

In Ojibwe we have words for reconciliation too but they are different from the English meanings. “Aashtahwehwin” means “doing it back,” or having an opportunity to do it again. “Aashtahwingging” means the art of “doing it back.” This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has offered us. Many have had the chance to tell their stories. Some have been able to confront the ones who hurt them. I remember the first “reunion” organized for clergy, staff and students of the schools at Spanish. This took place about 20 years ago. I went to see my old classmates. However, for many it was not a reunion in that sense.  Many of the students had come to confront their old teachers. The administrators were totally surprised by the anger and hurt that the students wanted to talk about. I particularly remember that some of the girls wanted to physically challenge one of their supervisors in retaliation for the pain she had inflicted on them. There have been subsequent “reunions” and the anger is over and reconciliation is taking place. It seemed that those running our schools were so convinced of the value and importance of what they were doing that they were oblivious to the students’ perceptions and it was only when they acknowledged the students’ feelings that reconciliation could occur.

There is another Ojibwe word, “Bonnigi deh taadewin” which literally means “the process of pushing the badness out of your heart.” It seems to me that this is really what we should strive for. We can put on programs and teach courses but the reconciliation will not begin until we all come together with our hearts. Let’s stop dialoguing from the mind and start speaking from our hearts. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has started the process. Many of our elders have spoken from their hearts for the first time. We must demand that their courage be respected and that Canadian politicians, bureaucrats and the general population speak from their hearts as well. That is the only way that the lives of the little ones will be honoured.

Meegwetch. Meen dikodohnun. Thank you. These are my words.

The original story can be found at http://www.manitoulin.ca/2015/06/10/one-of-the-residential-school-survivor-lucky-ones-recalls-the-experience/#sthash.g32XwO32.dpuf

U of S alumnus elected to Amnesty International board

Bill Rafoss

Bill Rafoss (BA’74, Arts’97, MA’05), a sessional lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College, has been elected to a two-year term with the board of directors for Amnesty International Canada.

Active in the Saskatoon Branch of Amnesty International for a number of years, Rafoss decided to run for the board to make a contribution at the national level, and was elected at the annual general meeting held last weekend in Halifax, N.S.

Comprised of 10 elected members from across Canada, the work of the board ranges from setting policies to approving the operational plans and the budget for Amnesty International Canada’s work each year and ensuring that international decisions are implemented at the national level.

Rafoss has experience working in the human rights sector, serving as the chief investigating officer for the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission for more than 25 years before retiring in 2012. He also has extensive international experience, working with human rights groups in Kenya, Tanzania, Mongolia and the Cayman Islands.

For more information, see the STM release.

Nursing in Nepal

Dawn Anderson in Nepal

Red Cross nurse and U of S alumna Dawn Anderson’s (BA’01, BSN’05) humanitarian work in earthquake-ravaged Nepal began just days after the 7.8-magnitude quake.

Her exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict or natural disaster in countries like Haiti, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza and the Philippines has earned her the Florence Nightingale Medal. She is the only Canadian out of the 36 recipients from 18 countries to receive the medal.

Read more

U of S alumnae make the W100

Monique Haakensen and Corrin Harper

Monique Haakensen and Corrin Harper

Two University of Saskatchewan alumnae were named to the 2015 W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs, put together by the editors of PROFIT and Chatelaine magazines.

Monique Haakensen (BSc’04, PhD’09)
Monique Haakensen is the sole founder of Contango Strategies Ltd., a Saskatoon-based company that plans and designs site-specific water treatment strategies, such as constructed wetlands, and offers consulting services. It operates the only dedicated fee-for-service passive water treatment system pilot facility in North America with complimentary microbiology laboratories.

Read more about Monique Haakensen and Contango Strategies

Corrin Harper (BComm’95, MBA’00)
Making the list for the second straight year, Corrin Harper is co-founder and president of Insightrix Research Inc., a market research company whose head office is in Saskatoon, Sask. With the emergence of online data collection and the decreasing response rates for telephone surveys, Insightrix bought and developed its own software that has enabled it to offer clients options such as mobile ethnography, dashboarding and facial-expression analysis.

Read more about Corrin Harper and Insightrix.

See the complete 2015 W100 list.

Digital pioneer

Amanda Kelly (photo provided)

Amanda Kelly (photo provided)

“I do not own a TV,” said Amanda Kelly.

In the age of cord cutting, the statement doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. The fact Kelly works for Global News in Montreal, Que. might make her statement seem a bit peculiar. Maybe not when you take into account she is the online news producer.

Amanda Kelly (BEd’95) is a digital pioneer. She was involved with the ground-breaking website for the prestigious newspaper, The Guardian—the first British newspaper to offer a “web first” service, putting content online before it appeared in the paper.

Graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, Kelly did not set out with the intention of working in journalism. “I had finished a road trip with a friend in Canada,” remembered Kelly. “I was trying to get a visa to visit South Africa, which did not work out. I decided to move to London. I did not realize how expensive it was in London, so I shared a house with a number of roommates and started teaching.

“Teachers in England do not make very much money, so I got a job in television production. I saw an advertisement in The Guardian’s jobs section and returned to London to work for the paper as a permissions executive. I helped negotiate the terms of re-publication of Guardian, Observer and New Internationalist content. It was an exciting time because the news media were just entering the online world. Questions of copyright and ownership of content were major issues—and still are today.”

During her time as a permissions executive, she would also do double duty as a web editor. “Computers have always been an interest, and I helped with things like sub-editing content, coding for the website and tagging.  We were referred to as the ‘kids upstairs’ by many on The Guardian staff who were maybe from a different generation,” said Kelly with a laugh. “I worked a lot of night shifts with an interesting group of people. Many were PhD students who had many different viewpoints. It was a great work environment.”

While Kelly enjoyed her responsibilities with The Guardian, she would move on to other endeavours. “I co-founded a voice recording studio where we would do work for radio including the BBC.  We also did audio books including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.”

After almost ten years living and working in England, Kelly would find herself back in Canada. She worked a number of different communications jobs including for the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the McCord Museum in Montreal. “I was responsible for projects like working on art books as the editor for the National Gallery and working on texts for exhibitions at the McCord Museum. I also did freelance work doing things like copy editing, project management, proofreading.  I am passionate about anything to do with culture and communications.”

In 2011, Kelly would re-enter the news-media world. “I was hired as the online news producer for Global News in Montreal. When I started, Global was moving much more into the digital world. We totally redesigned the website, and reporters were trained to also think about such platforms as Twitter and the website when producing a story. It is a transition that is still taking place.”

Kelly sees a number of differences between traditional television and online news. “Both TV and online are telling stories about our lives, cities and world. When we are producing a television piece, we are basically writing for the images that are presented to the viewer. A story online has a different dimension to it.  People are able to give their feedback on the piece either through comments on the site, Facebook or Twitter. The story is constantly developing and changing. It is up to the news team to keep on top of it all.”

In the instantaneous age of the internet, Kelly does see some challenges in her role as web producer. “In my profession, the fastest news organization to the story is often the winner. But you just can’t be quick, you also have to be good,” said Kelly matter-of-factly. “It is important to put a story out with the basics of good journalism like fact-checking. There is always pressure as well to balance limited resources with all the possibilities the online world presents.”

She still sees a role for traditional news organizations in a world dominated by bloggers and citizen journalists. “I like to think one of my roles as web producer is to help curate the news.  We are able to draw from many different sources to help put together a more complete picture to a story.”

Kelly does see a change in how we may consume the news. “All of the news that I view is online. I see Facebook moving into news as a real game changer. How it is collaborating with the Press Association for its UK politics page, for example, is very interesting. Using people’s photos and posts in news features will raise many questions over the copyright of content on Facebook.”

While Kelly is very adept at using social media, her own news consumption habits tend to the longer form. “I love reading pieces that can really delve into the story. I think we are seeing more websites doing that type of journalism. I also enjoy reading opinion pieces that provide different perspectives on an issue.”

No matter the future of journalism or news reporting, it is very likely that Kelly will be on her laptop or iPhone documenting the entire process.

U of S alumni invested into Saskatchewan Order of Merit

Lorne Calvert in St. Andrew's Seminary on the U of S campus in Saskatoon

Lorne Calvert in St. Andrew’s Seminary on the U of S campus in Saskatoon

On April 16, Lieutenant Governor Vaughn Solomon Schofield announced the names of the 10 new recipients—six of whom are University of Saskatchewan alumni—to be invested into the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the province’s highest honour that marks its 30th anniversary this year.

In a statement, Solomon Schofield said, “Like those invested into the Saskatchewan Order of Merit over the past three decades, this year’s recipients are individuals of uncommon achievement, generosity and vision. I congratulate them on this well-deserved honour, and I thank them for their extraordinary contributions to our province.”

The 2014-15 recipients who are U of S alumni are:

Lorne Calvert, BA’73
The Reverend Lorne Calvert had a long and prosperous career in provincial politics. He was first elected to the Saskatchewan Legislature in 1986 and was sworn into office as Saskatchewan’s 13th premier on Feb. 8, 2001. Among his many roles in government before becoming premier, he served as associate minister of health, minister responsible for SaskPower and SaskEnergy, deputy chair of the Crown Corporations Committee, member of the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Environment, minister of health and minister of social services.

In the summer of 2009, he became the principal at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.

Wilfred (Wilf) Keller, BSA’69, PhD’72
Wilf Keller is a recognized global leader in research, management and promotion of agricultural biotechnology. He has worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council, Genome Prairie and Ag-West Bio Inc., dedicating himself to the advancement of agricultural biotechnology.

He led the development of scientific protocols that impacted the development of crops such as canola, mustard, broccoli and cabbage. His work was a prerequisite to the development of the first herbicide-tolerant canola variety in North America, and he has collaborated with numerous organizations to ensure scientific discoveries are quickly converted into agricultural advantages for producers.

William (Bill) McKnight, LLD’14
The Honourable Bill McKnight served the constituents of Kindersley-Lloydminster as a member of Parliament from 1979 to 1993, serving as minister in seven federal departments. He also served as the first minister of the Department of Western Economic Diversification and laid the groundwork for the 1992 Saskatchewan Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement.

McKnight served as the treaty commissioner for the Province of Saskatchewan and was made honorary chief by the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, who named a parcel of commercial land in Saskatoon after him in recognition for his role in creating the first urban reserve in Canada.

Ellen Schmeiser, LLB’57, BA’59
Ellen Schmeiser served as special advisor on matrimonial property and prepared recommendations for legislation that led to the enactment of The Matrimonial Property Act in 1980, regarded by many as the most progressive legislation of its kind in the country and became a model for other provinces.

Her dedication to equality and human rights issues led to her being founding Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, representing the three Prairie provinces.

Among her many roles, she was an associate professor in the College of Law at the U of S and served as judge of the Provincial Court.

David E. Smith, DLett’95
University of Saskatchewan Professor Emeritus David E. Smith has spent his entire professional academic career in Saskatchewan, as a professor in the U of S Department of Political Studies and later as senior policy fellow at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

Smith has shaped the thinking of thousands of Saskatchewan post-secondary students, and through his writing, has brought national and international attention to scholarship in Saskatchewan. He is an internationally recognized scholar whose work is deeply rooted in the Prairies, bringing Saskatchewan political history into the mainstream of Canadian political science.

Henry Woolf, LLD’01In 1983, after a very full career in theatre, television and film, Henry Woolf came to Saskatchewan to take up a position at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Drama, of which he would later become head.

He has been a major influence for generations of writers, actors, directors and other theatre professionals whose careers he has helped launch and shape. London, UK born and educated, Woolf has made Saskatoon home and has made significant contributions to theatre and the arts, working with Persephone Theatre, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan as artistic director, and many other groups and organizations.

The 2014 and 2015 investitures have been merged this year with the ceremony for both taking place on May 13 in Regina.

Established in 1985, the Saskatchewan Order of Merit is a prestigious recognition of excellence, achievement and contributions to the social, cultural and economic well-being of the province and its people. The Order acknowledges individuals who have made their mark in the arts, agriculture, business, industry, community leadership, occupations, professions, public service, research and volunteer service.

The Saskatchewan Order of Merit takes precedence over all other provincial honours and awards. The lieutenant governor is the Chancellor of the Order.

See the complete list
Read more about the recipients (pdf)

Canadian naval ship to be named after U of S alumna

MargaretBrooke_webOn April 13, the Government of Canada announced that an Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) will be named after Margaret Martha Brooke, a Royal Canadian Navy Nursing Sister decorated for gallantry in combat during the Second World War.

Brooke (BHSc’35, BA’65, PhD’71), who recently turned 100 years old, earned her PhD in geological sciences and is the author of several papers in the field of paleontology.

On October 14, 1942, during a crossing of the Cabot Strait off the coast of Newfoundland, the ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed by the German submarine U-69. The ferry sank in five minutes. Fighting for her own survival, Lieutenant-Commander (LCdr) Brooke did everything humanly possible to save the life of her colleague and friend, Nursing Sister Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, while both women clung to ropes on a capsized lifeboat. In spite of Brooke’s heroic efforts to hang on to her with one arm, her friend succumbed to the frigid water.

For this selfless act, Brooke was named a member of the Order of the British Empire.

HMCS Margaret Brooke will be the second of six Harry DeWolf-class AOPS constructed as part of Canada’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. Construction is set to begin in the fall of 2015.

Read more on the Royal Canadian Navy’s website

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

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