Victoria Gagne is in the first year of the Joint Master of Governance and Entrepreneurship in Northern and Indigenous Areas (GENI) program at Johnson Shoyama Graduate School.
“Already, the program has given me a framework for better understanding public policy,” she says. “The more I understand the process of government decisions, the more I can advocate for the best policies for our people, our communities and our land.”
Victoria, a citizen of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, is studying part-time while working full-time at the Clarence Campeau Development Fund (CCDF). She is a Business Development & Community Relations Specialist working with funding partners, industry and communities to meet the needs of Métis businesses and stimulate economic development in Métis communities.
The GENI program is giving Victoria an opportunity to develop competencies in governance, consultation and entrepreneurship for northern and Indigenous communities. “It’s not just GENI teaching me—it’s me sharing my learning with the CCDF, our clients and communities,” she says.
Finding a Path
Victoria’s academic career has demonstrated an openness to exploring the cultures and economies of other countries, particularly other Indigenous cultures. After graduating high school in Regina, she moved across the country to attend McGill University in Montreal. There, she earned a Bachelor of Commerce with an Accounting major and an Indigenous Studies minor.
Victoria also spent a semester at the University of Hawaii as a Fulbright Canada Young Indigenous Leader. “That semester was the most incredible experience of my undergraduate years. We spent mornings learning from Hawaiian elders and knowledge keepers and afternoons learning and working on the land.”
The experience in Hawaii inspired Victoria to return home to Saskatchewan after university. “I felt a responsibility to the land and community that formed me,” she says. “At first, I worked with a big four accounting firm. But after six months, I realized that wasn’t the route I wanted to go. I wanted a career that let me create meaningful change.”
Victoria was searching job sites late one night when she saw a posting for the CCDF. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the first time they had posted a job in about four years. I think it’s serendipitous that I was looking for a job that would let me wake up every day with a purpose, and here was the CCDF, whose mission is to improve economic circumstances for Saskatchewan Métis.”
Getting a master’s degree was always part of Victoria’s plan. “My dad was the first in his family to get a university degree, and he was in a master of science program but wasn’t able to complete the program for several reasons. I knew he wanted to go further, and that made it important for me to take the next step,” she says.Victoria’s desire to create change in her own community, combined with her love of learning and curiosity about other cultures, created a clear path to Johnson Shoyama.
The GENI program is delivered and administered in partnership with UiT The Arctic University of Norway, which intrigued Victoria. “I’ve always been interested in seeing what other communities are doing and what best practices I can learn from them. I think it really helps you see what we could be doing here,” she says.
GENI courses are online, enabling students to continue living and working in their home communities. “At first, I wondered whether I would get the richness of networks I wanted through an online program, but GENI fosters strong relationships and an international network. There’s a real sense of camaraderie,” Victoria says.
To help foster personal connections, students participate in short-term exchanges in the form of field schools, both in northern Saskatchewan and northern Norway.
“Having had that formative experience as an exchange student in Hawaii, I know how impactful field school learning can be. You build connections and develop much more holistic approaches, which I think can lead to more impactful initiatives,” Victoria says. “We have a field school scheduled in March 2022 for northern communities in Norway. Because of COVID, our field school in northern Saskatchewan communities had to be virtual, so I’m hoping we get to go to Norway.”
Victoria is looking forward to partnering with a northern/Indigenous community on her applied research project in year three. Applied research is a cornerstone of the GENI program, and a chance for students to learn community-based project development while gaining experience working with industry, government, Indigenous organizations and stakeholders.
“The GENI program has you partner with a community with similar interests for your applied research project. That’s a big draw for me, because I want my research to benefit the community it’s about,” Victoria says. “Our professors are really good at encouraging us to tie what we learn into our research, but I’m also finding that I can apply what I’m learning right now in my work at CCDF.”
Pam Larson, CEO of the CCDF, sees a direct link between Victoria’s research through the GENI program and its potential impact or use at the CCDF.
“The CCDF is a small organization, and having access to research on Indigenous entrepreneurship programs and successes in other countries and regions could benefit the communities we serve,” Pam says, “Whether she’s researching barriers to participation or looking at different types of programs, she will gain knowledge that she can bring back to the CCDF and that we could potentially use it to advocate for change or to develop new programs here in Saskatchewan.”
At the CCDF, Victoria has stepped into a new role of helping Métis women overcome barriers to entrepreneurship. “I’m passionate about supporting women in business—that’s always been my goal,” she says. “Working with the CCDF has exposed me to the barriers that Indigenous and female entrepreneurs face trying to get into business.”
Victoria is currently focused on her applied research project. “I’m still developing my thesis, but I know it will involve women in business,” Victoria says. “That is what’s so rewarding about the program—I can apply what I learn through my research in my work. I don’t have to leave my job or my community to do what I want to do.”