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Beyond Our Edges: Tonii Lerat – Empowerment Through Knowledge

Our people are passionate about the work we do with Urban Systems, but that enthusiasm doesn’t stop when we sign out at the end of the day. Beyond Our Edges is a monthly series highlighting the creative, energetic and inspiring people in our branches across Western Canada, and the ways we engage with our communities outside of office hours.

Tonii Lerat is a Community Planner in our Saskatoon branch specializing in First Nation community development. She is a member of the Cowessess First Nation, and attended the Indigenous Studies Summer Program (ISSP) at Columbia University in New York in the summer of 2017, an international program that includes an exploration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

Q: How to you participate in your community when you’re not at work?

A: As a member of Cowessess First Nation, I try to stay connected in my community even though I live four hours away. I sit on a couple of community committees, specifically the economic development committee and a committee focused on creating a new Pow Wow Arbor.

I also volunteer in other Indigenous communities I’ve connected with through my work at Urban Systems, and attend a number of events they organize. I’ve been quite involved with Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation (Beardy’s), attending their annual Pow Wows and Pride events, and volunteered with food preparation and organizing supplies for the “Rez Cross” (2015) , where we gathered supplies and helped create an emergency shelter for the communities affected by the wildfires in Northern Saskatchewan. It was a really great initiative because the community hosted people from other Indigenous communities who were displaced, providing them with traditional food and cultural events so they would feel a little more at home during a difficult time.

I’m also part of the Saskatoon Aboriginal Professionals Association, which is a network of people who get together to support each other’s growth and professional development, as well as providing mentorship opportunities for Indigenous people looking for support in developing their careers.

Tonii and Jasna (Community Development Coordinator) at the Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation Pride Parade (2016)

Q: Why is it important to you to be so involved?

A: The community I grew up in was small – around 500 people and now just a little bigger at 800 people – and very tight-knit, so when I moved to the city twelve years ago I felt that I had lost a piece of that. So, I’ve been trying to build that sense of community outside of my home. I especially like going to Beardys because it’s very similar to the community I grew up with. For me, this is a way to maintain that sense of community without having to travel home every weekend.

Q: Why did you decide to attend the Indigenous Studies Summer Program and learn about UNDRIP?

A: I decided to go for two reasons:

  • I heard a number of clients asking about UNDRIP, and I didn’t feel equipped to answer their questions about it confidently, and;
  • My own community was talking and asking about it a lot so having abetter understanding hit close to home, and it became a personal investment for me.

Q: What did you gain from the experience?

A: The greatest value I gained from the experience was perspective. When I decided to participate in the program, I thought it was going to be a very technical thing, learning about all the specific details and how UNDRIP works when it is adopted by a government. And it was, but, it wasn’t the most important thing. What it was to me was the chance to get to learn about all the Indigenous issues from around the world from those people, which I hadn’t really thought about since University. I did learn about some things then, but it was still very North American centered, and the experience ISSP really blew my eyes wide open.

I got to learn that at the government and community levels, Canadian Indigenous People are really leading the way in terms of fighting for Indigenous rights and gaining sovereignty of our lands. But there is also a lot of learning we can do from other countries so that we can not only stay ahead of the curve, but also share our knowledge to support others.

Q: How has the experience affected your approach to the communities you work and/or volunteer with?

A: Everything is still really fresh for me right now, but the most interesting impact I’ve seen is within the Urban Systems offices. I’ve traveled to Vancouver and Kamloops and offered a presentation on my experiences, as well as having conversations with my colleagues, and the uptake of people who want to know more has been something I had not expected. I think people are really interested in finding genuine ways to apply it to their work with First Nations communities. I also think it’s great that the Province of British Columbia has just officially adopted UNDRIP.

For me, gaining the knowledge it so simple but it’s such a big thing. Even if someone in our family or community asks a question or sees something on the news, we’re a little better equipped to answer the questions and talk about it, which is pretty special.

The Indigenous Studies Summer Program visits Akwesasne Mohawk Nation – Long House Photo with students and Clan Chief (2017)

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