As a young man growing up in an Aboriginal community, he was all too aware of the impact of not having a voice at the table.
“In the Aboriginal community, our lives are heavily impacted by public policy. It goes all the way back to the Indian Act of 1876. I lived under specific public policies aimed at First Nations people, but I realized that I didn’t really know how government worked,” Neal says.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous Studies from First Nations University in 2009, Neal moved right into the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. In 2011, he became the first Indigenous graduate of the MPA program.
“I’m proud of that,” Neal says. “I wanted a more formal background in policy and public administration, and Johnson Shoyama elevated my credentials to a platform where I could converse about issues that were important to me—issues of policy and government, and how they impact Aboriginal peoples.”
Learning to lead
Like many of his classmates, Neal found the first weeks of class at Johnson Shoyama intimidating. One of his most memorable experiences came in his first semester, when he volunteered to lead a class assignment.
“We had to choose a ministry and do a budget. I chose Finance because our instructor had worked in that ministry. I was so naïve,” Neal says. “I didn’t know finance leaders were like the quarterbacks of government. When I realized this, I remember thinking, ‘what have I just volunteered myself for?’”
Throwing himself into the fire, even if it was out of naiveté, turned out to be a great confidence-booster. Neal found his ideas were heard, valued and accepted by classmates. “That experience showed me that I belonged in the program. It still brings up a lot of emotion when I think about it,” Neal says. “It was humbling to know that I’d been given this chance to lead, but it was also humbling because I was often the only First Nations voice in class discussions. I felt this huge sense of responsibility. That’s always driven me.”
Neal’s approach to leading is rooted in his Aboriginal culture and community. “Leadership, for me, is about service. I would never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do. It’s not about dictating, it’s about everyone pitching in and moving forward. You learn how to build a common understanding. You practice diplomacy and empathy—empathy is an important trait of service among Aboriginal leaders. That is the model I try to emulate,” Neal says.
Comments from classmates and employers illustrate that Neal practices what he preaches. “His unique mix of enthusiasm, sincerity and humour, both in and out of the classroom, is a great example of leadership by example,” wrote Brett Zoerb (MPA’14) when he nominated Neal for a 2011 JSGS Student Leadership Award wrote. Leading by example is at the core of Neal’s style.
“Neal is changing the culture of how this health care team meets client needs, and how we manage public health services in our region,” says Suzanne Mahaffey, director of Population & Public Health at the Saskatoon Health Region and Neal’s current boss. “He has a quiet, gentle way of bringing forward difficult conversations that impact First Nations and Metis peoples today in the health care system and beyond.”
Having an impact
After graduating from Johnson Shoyama, Neal moved his young family to Alberta so he could accept a job as director with Native Counselling Services of Alberta. “NCSA is one of the largest Aboriginal social justice agencies in the country. I was in a senior level management role that allowed me to participate in national discussions on social services and justice issues.”
While he was committed to the work he was doing, Neal also felt the pull of home. He and his wife were about to have another baby, and wanted to be closer to family. And Neal wanted to make an impact on his own community. When the Saskatoon Health Region reached out to ask Neal to manage the Building Health Equity Program, he was happy to move home.
The Building Health Equity department falls under the health region’s Population and Public Health umbrella. Formed in 2007 to address health equity issues in core-neighbourhoods, the program offers child health clinic services, postnatal home visits, breastfeeding supports and housing issue supports. It partners with various agencies and schools in the area.
As a department manager, Neal heads up an interdisciplinary team that includes public health nurses, community program builders, a public health inspector, community dietitian and administrative assistant. He is also part of the strategic management team of physician and manager leaders in Population and Public Health—a position that gives him that all-important seat at the table when public health service issues are being discussed and priorities set.
“I’ve been blessed,” Neal says. “I work for the largest employer in the province—health—and that allows me to have some influence. I’m in one of the only First Nation senior leadership positions in the health region, and still one of only a handful of Aboriginal managers.”
Neal says he uses the skills, knowledge and connections he made at JSGS in his job today. He’s honed the art of helping others see the big picture. Whether members of his team, political leaders or community residents, he’s learned to bring people along and help them trace a simple action back to the big picture, to show that poverty affects everyone in society, not just those living in poverty.
For now, Neal is content to let the future unfold before him. “I aspire to be in a political role, serving my community as a leader, but I’m not sure what that looks like. My grandfather’s last words to me were, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing now, you’ll be alright.’ He left that for me to figure out. I think that whatever I’m doing, as long as I’m giving back I will feel fulfilled.”