With the recent 2017-18 Budget announcement, programs and services affected will be updated shortly. Posted March 22, 2017

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Education Making a Difference for First Nations and Métis People

Education led to a better life for Sheena

Sheena working in her office

Sheena Yew always knew that pursuing post-secondary education would be a worthwhile journey, although the path was sometimes difficult.

“Getting an education was the only option, as far as I was concerned, to be able to provide for my family.”

At the age of 19, Sheena was expecting her first child, working part time doing telephone surveys and collecting social assistance. “I didn’t want that any more. I didn’t like being broke, I didn’t like having no money, not being able to do the things I wanted to do or buy the things I needed to buy.”

With no money to spare, Sheena knew that school would be impossible without funding, so she applied and received the funding she needed. She registered for a Business Application/Medical Office Assistant program at CDI College in Saskatoon and graduated with distinction seven months later.

An unexpected opportunity

Sheena Yew graduates from CDI College
Sheena graduates from CDI College.

Unfortunately not many offices were hiring at the time, so Sheena broadened her job search. She applied for and got a position as a clerk-steno at Dumont Technical Institute (DTI). “I always wanted to somehow make a difference in the Aboriginal community,” she said of her Métis heritage and the decision to apply for a position that was so far from what she had set out to do. “Right away I knew it was a great place to work. The organization was smaller and everyone was close, like family.” 

After returning from maternity leave after her daughter was born in 2006, Sheena learned that Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) was establishing a new entity, Gabriel Dumont Institute Training and Employment.

The news immediately sparked Sheena’s interest in a career change. Remembering how her career counsellor had helped her find her job just a few years earlier, she decided she would like to provide that same support to others. The problem was that she didn’t have the necessary education. A colleague let Sheena know about the Certificate in Aboriginal Employee Development Program (CAED) at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies.

Back to school

As a single income household, her young family had no money to spare for tuition. Sheena took as many classes as she could through professional development funds provided by DTI. While she studied she continued to work full time and care for her two young kids with the help of her partner at the time. She also applied twice for the job she was aiming for, both times unsuccessfully.

Even though she was not yet qualified for the job, she received constant encouragement from everyone at work, who believed she could one day land the position. In 2008, she got an employment counsellor position at GDI and she successfully completed the CAED program the next year.

Inspiring the next generation

Sheena Yew with her children
Sheena with her two children.

Each day Sheena helps people trying to figure out their futures. “The majority are coming in to talk about post-secondary training. They want to pursue something after high school. So we look at what it is they want to take, what the labour market is like, and then if they’re eligible for sponsorship we would submit an application.” She works with her clients throughout their education and subsequent job hunt including helping with résumés, cover letters, and interviews.

With her career going smoothly, Sheena’s personal life became difficult. Five years ago she got herself and her children away from domestic abuse. Now at the age of 31, Sheena is a single mom to a twelve-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter. As a mom, Sheena makes every effort to instil the value of a post-secondary education in her children. “I try to lead by example. Even though I’m doing this as a single parent, I’m able to give them all the things they have because of the job I have, and I have the job I have because of going to school.”

Her path has not been an easy one, but Sheena overcame many challenges to achieve success. “If there’s anything I want people to know, it’s that honestly a lot of Aboriginal people still face challenges…I have experienced some of these things…and I still came out successful.”

Sheena knows, “It’s possible even when you are challenged...there is help. There are people who care. You can shape your future the way you want it to look; you just have to want it and try.”


Ray’s hands-on training

Ray Amyotte next to his work trailer

Carpentry seemed like a natural fit for Ray Amyotte. Several relatives on his father’s side have worked in the trades.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Supportive parents

Before he reached his teen years, Ray was like many children growing up in North Central Regina, active in organized sports. He remembers good times swimming at the local pool, participating in programs at the community centre and making lifelong friends.

However, some of his friends started getting into trouble and dropping out of school by Grade 7 or 8. According to Ray, his parents took steps to ensure he and his siblings had more positive influences.

“I had supportive parents. They were very influential. My parents didn’t have any post-secondary education but they kept us involved in school activities. I had to keep up my school marks or else I couldn’t play hockey or baseball.”

In high school he liked chemistry, electronics, and industrial arts but he really enjoyed psychology and considered it a possible career. 

A new direction

Ray and his wife Treena in Banff
Ray and his supportive wife Treena.

“Then I went in a different direction. I took a year off after graduating from high school. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to university.”

Indeed, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. After graduation, he met his future wife, Treena. By the time Ray was 22, they had two young sons.

Ray had worked on some construction jobs and so as a Métis person, he enrolled in a new Construction Careers program at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT).

“The funny thing is that I didn’t like algebra and geo-trig in high school. I couldn’t get it. It was weird.”

Juggling demands

Ray graduates from SIIT
Ray was honoured as one of SIIT's first
graduates of the Construction Careers Program.

Math skills are essential for a carpenter. But that was just one of the challenges.

“Treena was taking university classes and working. I was in training classes, then working. And we were taking care of our young sons. I remember staying up to 3 or 4 in the morning studying for exams. Both of us did.”

Ray applied himself and became one of the first graduates of SIIT’s Construction Careers program, attaining his journeyman’s status as a carpenter.

“I look back now and wonder how we did it. We were juggling a lot of demands in our lives. I knew it was going to be a tough time. The most important thing – it wasn’t about us – it was about our two kids. We had to make sure they were looked after properly. It didn’t matter – we had to make sacrifices.”

Moving forward

Those sacrifices have paid off. Treena graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing. Ray created his own business in renovations, mainly in residential construction.

“I realized I had a knack for working with my hands. As a carpenter, you often start with nothing. I enjoy seeing the finished product and making people happy.”

Ray, who is now 36 years old, employs three people and expects to expand to a storefront business in the next five years.

“Being your own boss means a lot more work. You put in extra hours. It’s your business so there is more responsibility. My business is going to expand. I’m just waiting for the right time to make the right moves.”

There are many tradespeople in his family including carpenters, an electrician, a plumber, and an ironworker.

Putting family first

Ray Amyotte with his wife and two sons
Ray with his wife and their two sons.

His sons, now 16 and 14, are in high school. He has instilled in them the values of hard work and dedication. It’s a message he has delivered to students at SIIT.

“When you are a student, it’s like building a structure. You start off at the bottom. You are building a foundation for yourself.”

It’s too early to say whether his sons will wind up in the trades, the family business, or some other career but Ray is certain about one thing.

“Post-secondary education is so important just to get a regular job. About 70 per cent of jobs these days require post-secondary. If you want to be successful, have a career, you need post-sec. There is no other option.”


Shane’s clear image of success

Shane Keepness at university

At the age of 25, Shane Keepness has already accomplished much, excelling in sports, music, and academics. He hopes his example will inspire a new generation of young leaders.

Life in Muscowpetung

Shane’s journey began on the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation, a small reserve nestled in the Qu’Appelle valley, northeast of Regina. It is where he grew up learning about the outdoors from his father – chopping wood in the winter and hunting deer, rabbits, and waterfowl for food. 

Shane Keepness as a child with his dad
Shane learned all about the outdoors
from his father.
Muscowpetung is where he played many sports including baseball, a sport in which he and his teammates would compete in the 2008 North American Indigenous Games. “Sports taught me discipline, taught me character, how other people react to situations. It allowed yourself to see how you fit into a group. It has also been good to make friends.”

He credits his parents as good role models: hard workers who taught him about work ethic and responsibility.

Shane was an Honour Roll student in high school with a strong interest in the sciences. After graduation, he was excited to attend First Nations University (FNU) in Regina enrolling in a pre-dentistry program.

 “I wanted to create better opportunities for myself. I realized at a young age that education is going to give you a good quality of life.”

New insights at university

Shane ended up earning a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Health and Science. He developed an interest in indigenous studies especially the historical and political relationship between Canada and its indigenous people. This would lead to a Master’s degree in indigenous governance from the University of Victoria. Now, Shane wants his doctorate.

“I want to get my PhD that will allow me to teach. I want to write books. I don’t want to be an academic that stays in the classroom. I want to be out in the community working with people and on the ground.”

Giving back for the future

Shane’s already giving back through his full-time job as the Community-based Coordinator with FNU. Shane handles the planning, logistics, and budgets for programs that are delivered around the province.

“We are getting certificates and degrees for indigenous students in their home communities. Programs such as education, social work, and business allow people to gain a better quality of life through career development.”

He’s also in demand as a motivational speaker where he delivers several key messages to young people. “They have unlimited potential. It’s all about challenging yourself. They can be whatever they want to be and still be true to their roots. That’s why it’s important they learn our languages and give back to our communities.”

A commitment to Saskatchewan

Shane loves his work and plans to continue in the job while he pursues his doctorate in Victoria. His goal is to stay and work in Saskatchewan.

“A lot of people say ‘Oh, you’re so young, you don’t have kids, or you’re not married – why don’t you go live somewhere else in Los Angeles or San Francisco?’ Yeah, those places are nice, but this is where my people come from. This is where my grandmother is; this is the land I was born.”

Shane has a clear image of success.

“Working with people, teaching people, giving them better ideas, better access to knowledge, and just being practical. It’s not about making money or having a nice house.  It is more so about family. How I can give back to my family?  When I’m ready to have a family how will I teach my children?”

Challenging himself

Shane Keepness with his mixed martial arts' training partners
Shane trains with his teammates in
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

While continuing to study and work, Shane challenges himself in other ways. He’s taught himself to play the piano, bass guitar, and synthesizer, as well as produce music for artists in Saskatchewan and beyond. He also trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and plans to compete in more mixed martial arts tournaments.

Shane’s busy life is also inspiring others in his family to pursue post-secondary education.

“Me pursuing my degree, I noticed a shift in my younger cousins. It’s like I set the standard, and a lot of my aunties tell their kids, ‘you have to be like Shane.’ Not to say that getting a degree is the ultimate thing, but it’s an option for them now because I am the first one in my family to do that.”


Lifelong learning is an adventure for Jenny

Jenny Chomyn in front of brick wall

When Jenny Chomyn was a girl growing up in Prince Albert, conversations with her parents often included the words ‘and when you go to university…’ As a smart kid and a good student, Jenny and her family assumed that one day she would pursue a post-secondary education.

She did, graduating from the University of Saskatchewan in 2003 with a B.A. in Native Studies. Now at the age of 34 she has her sights set on a new challenge – a degree in medicine and a future as a doctor. 

A new path

“Every job that I’ve had I’ve found that connection where I have that moment where I’m able to help someone, or I’m able to help them help themselves, and that’s where I feel wonderful,” she says of her decision to pursue a career in medicine. “So the second go around with me going back to university, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I want to help people. I want to take it to that next level.”

Jenny Chomyn graduating high school
Jenny had no doubt she would attend
university after her high school graduation.

With her positive attitude, there is little doubt that Jenny can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. 

On top of working full time, she manages her former in-laws’ restaurant a few evenings a week and attends night classes at Saskatchewan Polytechnic on the other evenings. She lives by the motto ‘attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure’ – a message she keeps posted on her computer monitor and frequently reinforces with her 18-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

When she was growing up, Jenny’s grandma never talked about being First Nations. She only recently told Jenny she may have family in the One Arrow area, connections Jenny is eager to explore. Through her studies and the jobs she has held, Jenny has come to understand and embrace her Métis heritage.

Challenges for a young student

She’s heading back to school with her eyes wide open, a world away from when she was a 17-year-old first-year student caring for her toddler son. “The biggest challenge was I didn’t know what to expect my first year of university. It was so foreign. I felt like I didn’t have the proper information. It was probably available; I just didn’t know where to look for it.”

She attended a mixture of classes that year to see what ‘clicked’ – for Jenny it was her Native Studies classes. Later in her studies, when one of her professors asked her to teach a seminar in Métis history, she finally felt like she found where she fit in.

Shortly after graduation Jenny began working as a driver examiner with SGI. On the advice of a former classmate she applied for an internal job posting for a Gradworks internship that brought her into the world of human resources. Ten years later, she is a consultant for Recruitment and Diversity for SGI, a job she loves. “With me leaving SGI, there haven’t been a lot of dry face nights,” says Jenny as she will soon leave the job behind to pursue full time studies.

Back to school with eyes wide open

Jenny Chomyn with her family
Jenny’s family are excited for her to go back
to school. Photo by Chantal Tuttroen.

The idea to pursue a career in medicine came to her a few years ago. Two years ago, just when she was about to put in her application, her family received devastating news. Jenny’s mom had been diagnosed with colon cancer. It was while she was helping her mom recover from surgery she became fascinated with how it is possible to resect and repair the body, reaffirming that medicine was the right choice.

“I gave myself a year after she passed away just so that I wouldn’t make this decision lightly and that I wouldn’t be in a bad place to make this decision. I am absolutely set in stone that this is what I am going to do.”

Jenny will start class in the fall and one of the first things she'll do is register with the Aboriginal Students Union – something she didn’t do the first time around.

With the full support of her kids and her husband, Jenny’s looking forward to her time back at school, “I’m dedicating my time to studies. My son says he’s going to help me rather than run around with a diaper on,” she jokes. 


Kristen’s childhood dream became a reality

Kristen Tootoosis with her students in the classroom

Kristen Tootoosis always felt like she connected with her teachers. “My home life wasn’t very stable, but when I would go to school, it gave me structure – teachers that really cared. And that had an impact on me.”

That would explain why at a young age, she decided she wanted to be a teacher and one day work in her own community.

An ambitious 32-year-old woman, Kristen is now a wife, mother, teacher, and graduate student at the University of Regina, but it was a difficult journey to get to where she is today.

Inspiration from tougher times

Kristen’s mother gave birth to her at a very young age. Not long after Kristen was born, her mother moved Kristen from Regina to the Standing Buffalo First Nation to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother was a home care worker who was only paid minimum wage but still managed to raise Kristen and six other grandchildren.

“We were very poor. I didn’t have much,” Kristen recalls, “but seeing my grandma work so hard for such little money – raising all of us on that little bit of money - showed me that hard work is important.”

Growing up in a tough environment gave Kristen the drive to overcome the barriers she faced as a child and later as a young mother.

Juggling family and study

Kristen Tootoosis performs Pow Wow dancing
Kristen Tootoosis dancing in a Pow Wow dress.
Photo by Michael Keith Dubois.

After giving birth to her son at the age of 20, Kristen moved to Regina to pursue her dreams and start her post-secondary education at the First Nations University of Canada (FNU) in the Indigenous Education program. She chose the program because it teaches students how to incorporate an indigenous perspective into the curriculum. After her first year of studies, she took a year off to be a stay-at-home mother and returned to school a year later.

“It was such a struggle being a young mother, and trying to make ends meet. I wished I could just go get a full time job and leave school, but I knew that would get me nowhere. I knew I needed an education to support my family.”

She and her husband were both young parents in school and struggling financially. To pay the bills and support her family, she would compete in Pow Wow dancing and work as a seamstress. After reading, homework and putting her kids to sleep she would start sewing projects.

During these times she often sought guidance from her Aunt Annette. Her aunt was the first person in Kristen’s family with a degree, so she became Kristen’s mentor and sounding board.

“There were times when I just thought I couldn’t do it anymore. Finals were coming up, I had a sick baby, and rent was due. My aunt would always pull through whether it’d be financially, taking the time to listen to me, talk through things with me, babysit or help me with my assignments.”

Inspiring future dreams

In 2011, Kristen graduated with a Bachelor in Indigenous Elementary Education from FNU, and has since been working as a teacher at the Tatanka Najin Elementary school at the Standing Buffalo First Nation.

“I consider myself lucky to be working at such a wonderful school in my own community,” she says. “It’s really uplifting. I really came back to my community to reach these kids at the roots, to instil hope in them and do whatever I can to help them, and to be a listening ear and the stability that they need.

That’s the reward that I get – connecting with my students and making a difference in these kids’ lives. That’s what I needed [growing up], so I know that’s what works.”

For Kristen, a big part of her role as a teacher is inspiring her students to be confident in pursuing their dreams. Another part is to understand the situations that some of her students come from and empathize with them. “I know a lot of communities struggle with poverty and issues with drugs and alcohol, and I just want to help those children and provide the support and encouragement my teachers gave me when I was in school. I let them know that I’ve had similar experiences but was still able to overcome those barriers, and that gives them hope.”

Aiming even higher

Kristen Tootoosis with her family
Kristen Tootoosis with her supportive family.
Photo by Focus 22 Photography.

After three and a half years of working in the classroom, Kristen decided to go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Education Administration at the University of Regina. “My grandma really pushed me to keep setting that bar higher for myself. I never want to be too comfortable where I am at. I just want to keep challenging myself,” she says.

With two kids aged 11 and 7, Kristen still finds it challenging to find a balance. “They see me staying up all night writing papers, or up early in the morning reading before work and I want them to remember that. I want to show them that they have to work hard for whatever they want in life to achieve their goals.”

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