Student Type: Indigenous Award Recipient

Theresa John

Paddling upstream: Working toward justice for Indigenous peoples

Q & A with Theresa John, Juris Doctor of Laws, Thompson Rivers University

As a kid growing up in northern BC, Theresa John attended a Catholic school off-reserve, where the extent of learning about local Indigenous culture was limited to non-existent. It was one of the first serious disconnects the young Indigenous woman experienced while attending school and growing up in a country that predominantly ignored Indigenous history and experiences.

Theresa, whose home territory is with the Dakelh (Carrier) in the interior plateau of BC, knew there was more to the story. She also knew there were ways the legal system could support vulnerable individuals in a more culturally appropriate way. She was inspired by many close family members to achieve an education including her mother, aunties, and both of her grandmothers, who attended Lejac Residential school. Today, Theresa has completed a criminology degree from Simon Fraser University and is now taking her Juris Doctor of Law at Thompson Rivers University.

But it has not been an easy road. Here, Theresa shares how she persevered despite many setbacks and challenges.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the challenges Indigenous youth face when they’re trying to figure out the transition from high school to post-secondary?

A: Working through and completing post-secondary applications as a high school student can be really tough until you get the hang of it. For institutional applications, like at TRU or SFU, I needed different accounts for registration, learning platform systems and an email. Juggling all of these initially was a challenge, especially when there is limited or no internet access on-reserve, and nobody was formally available to advise in ensuring my application was completed properly. SFU’s advisors, staff and peers helped me navigate all those twists and turns of applying for different programs within the institution. The first time I applied to TRU Law, I missed one step and so they said, “We’re happy to get your application, but you missed this step, so you’re going to have to wait another year.” That was 2016. And I was like, “Oh, darn. How could I forget this step? After learning all these things in SFU, how could I miss that?”

Q: You also had some “twists and turns” once you were accepted to law school.

A: I received a conditional acceptance and had to complete the Native Law Centre Program in Saskatchewan, which is eight weeks. I had to quit my job, apply for funding, and leave my family and community to move to Saskatchewan for eight weeks. Everything changed. I wondered, “Why can’t I just go to law school like a regular student? Why do I have to do this program?” The requirement of completing the eight-week program is a lot of hard work because it is so condensed compared to the usual two semester course you complete in your first year. Despite the program being an extra step and double the work as an Indigenous law student, I value the life-long friendships I gained from that experience.

Q: And then you failed your program by one percent, which created a whole new barrier.

A: I did well in Aboriginal property, but not very well in real and personal property. And if you think about it, real property . . . that’s a belief system that’s totally contrary to Dakelh people, where a matrilineal potlatch system is followed. I’m learning a system that’s totally alien to mine, and I failed it by one percent. At this point, advocating for yourself and believing in your academic capabilities is crucial. If I just accepted the failing grade and doubted myself, I would not be here today with good academic standing and in my second year of law school.

Q: But ultimately — and there’s a much longer story about still more hoops you had to jump through — you were accepted. So tell me, why is this such an important career path for you?

A: My mother and uncle both served in the RCMP for over 25 years. And I witnessed my Aunty Mavis Erickson graduate with a master’s degree from Harvard Law, which influenced me to choose the path of becoming a criminal lawyer. Too many Indigenous people are trapped in the justice system due to systemic issues of inter-generational trauma from Residential Schools and the socioeconomic, physical and spiritual issues that arise from it, including poverty. Pursuing a career in law provides me with the opportunity to help foster systemic change. This program contributes to my ability in returning and working in my home territory with Dakelh people and continue building meaningful relationships. I strongly believe that traditional Indigenous justice systems have much to contribute to colonial structures, including the court system. I look forward to gaining and applying my skills and knowledge in becoming a part of changing the historically harmful relationships between Indigenous people and the law.

Q: How has the Indigenous Award helped you on your path?

A: It has helped relieve costs such as housing and transportation, definitely. And given I’m not in my community, I’m now able to visit more often, which is really huge. I think it’s really important for my mental health especially, because its hard attending post-secondary away from your family. And the longer you’re gone, the more your traditional teachers are leaving, right? I’ve lost so many aunts and uncles, so many grannies and grandpas since I’ve started my educational journey. So, they’re not there to teach me what they know about our history, culture and language. This award has had a huge impact on my academic journey and allowed me to value the connections to my family, community and culture even more.

Q: What else has helped you along the way?

A: I have a really great supportive family who have all been involved throughout my education. Had I not had them, I wouldn’t be in this position.

Thanks, Theresa. Your persistence and tenacity are something to admire. All the best as you complete your law degree, and begin to foster change in a legal system that is often unsupportive of Indigenous peoples.

Aaron Lambert

Where Will My Impact Be Greatest In This World?

Q & A with Aaron Lambert, BEd student, Vancouver Island University

Throughout his undergraduate degree in psychology, Metis student Aaron Lambert thought he might make his career in the addictions and mental health space. After all, he’d witnessed the difficulties borne by his own family members living with addictions as he grew up. But while he was working at a treatment centre during his psych undergrad, Aaron came to a new realization: he wanted to work with people before they got to the stage where their hopelessness drove them to the addiction spiral.

So he switched gears. After completing his psych degree with a certificate in addiction studies, he enrolled in the Bachelor of Education program at Vancouver Island University. “Working with adults is difficult,” says Aaron. “They have these problems that stem from childhood issues. In the education field, you’re in the trenches with these young people that can have very real problems. Being able to reach them on a daily basis . . . it felt perfect for me.”

Growing up in Prince George and seeing both of his parents struggle with addiction, as well as two of his siblings, Aaron brings a level of understanding and insight to his career that many teachers don’t. “I wanted to reach that at-risk population before they became adults,” he says. “This program helped me realize that I can do that by just showing up every day in the classroom.”

Aaron credits his best friend’s family for guiding him through the roughest patches. At 15, he moved with his friend’s family to Port Alberni, where he was able to take a breath from the challenges of living with his mother, whose own path of addiction also included abusive partners. Aaron returned briefly to Prince George to finish his Grade 12 and provide live-in care his elderly grandfather, but found that his hometown didn’t offer him the future he wanted. When his best friend began attending Vancouver Island University, Aaron — with his grandfather’s blessing and encouragement — followed, and began his post-secondary studies.

Receiving the Irving K. Barber British Columbia Society Indigenous Award for his diligence and effort throughout his Bachelor of Education has been a thrill for Aaron. “It was a huge help,” he says. “Any program can be quite daunting. It takes up a lot of time and energy, and when you have financial stress like I did throughout much of my undergraduate degrees, it takes its toll on you. This scholarship helped me with just being able to enjoy my final semester — to focus on the academics but also my on my craft as a beginner teacher.”

Aaron has chosen to work with primary students for maximum impact. Having experienced few positive male role models himself while he was growing up, he recognizes the importance of those figures in young children’s lives. “Especially in some inner city schools or some for some at-risk populations, positive male role models are somewhat difficult to come by,” he says. “Sometimes you can reach a lot of students — young men, young boys, as well as girls — that don’t have positive male figures in their lives. Knowing that I could be a male role model in the classroom and within the school, which overlaps within the community itself, where young people can come to for support and for guidance . . . I realize not only how important that is to the community itself, but to how important it is to me and my own worth.”

Aaron, thank you for taking part in our profiles. You’ve chosen a path of great significance, and we are grateful for the way you are focusing your energy for impact.

Mark Connelly

Executing a midlife pivot to make a lasting impact

Q & A with Mark Connelly, Bachelor of Social Work, University of Northern British Columbia

It’s never too late to make the change you want to make. So goes the thinking of UNBC student Mark Connelly, who originates from the Stó:lō Nation near Aggasiz, BC. Growing up with a mother who survived the trauma of the residential school system, Mark managed to do very well for himself, rising quickly within the hospitality industry. Supported by incredible mentors, bosses and friends, the friendly and hardworking young man progressed from dishwasher to chef to general manager —and everything in between — at Earls.

But his years in the service industry, with its late-night hours and party culture, are behind him. Now fully aware of the intergenerational sprawl of addiction and mental health issues as they disproportionately affect marginalized groups like his own Coast Salish people, Mark has shifted his focus and is instead working toward his degree in social work. His reason? So that he can help others see themselves as successful, powerful, and — like him — in charge of their own destinies.

Let Mark inspire you with his words, just like he inspired us.

Q: How has the Indigenous Award helped you on your path?

A: The $2000 Award I received allowed me not to work this semester, which was amazing. It’s just so much easier to balance life, especially coming back as a mature student. I was out of school for 19 years before I decided to switch careers and attend university. Just changing gears to becoming a student again . . . I tell people it’s like two full time jobs, because you have your classes and then in-school time — and the amount of homework and assignments is taxing to say the least.

Q: What’s it like being a mature student?

A: Before this, I had an entire career working my way up in the service industry to become a chef and then a general manager. So, I know task management and time management very well! Running restaurants with over 100 staff and entire management team, you learn people skills. Coming back as a mature student, you really understand the personal connection you need with people in the school. And I’m coming back with a purpose. I’m here to gain a new career, gain experience. I just love school.

Q: Why is a degree in social work so important to you?

 A: A degree in social work is so important because of my life experience. I am a first-generation survivor of residential school. My mother went to residential school, so I grew up seeing the trauma that has been caused, and how inter-generational it can be. Especially with my studies here at university, you kind of delve into that. And I have the life experience to share with my clients, and I have first hand experience with mental health concerns and these concerns that people in need are living with day to day. So, I’m not just going in with a degree, I’m going in with life experience to relate on a personal level.

Q: But you’re also filling out your degree with other specializations, aren’t you?

 A: I’m also getting a minor in psychology, and outdoor recreation, which is a weird combination! Psychology is to deal with the human aspect of social work. But also, I’ve been doing volunteering with a local high school for outdoor recreation, and search and rescue. Learning skills in the outdoors just instilled a huge sense of self-reliance and self-confidence in the youth. Because you know, last year I was working with grade eleven and twelves, and now a couple of those students are in university with me. Just to see their growth personally, by being in the outdoors, was incredible. That’s my dream and goal with a degree in social work, is to incorporate the outdoors where youth who are dealing with substance abuse or mental health concerns build their self-confidence and self-reliance, to know that they’re capable of anything.

Q: You faced some pretty tough barriers in getting to this place. Tell us about that.

 A: Yeah. I struggled with addictions. And that’s why I knew I had to make a life change, because that was not getting me anywhere. I was going completely the wrong direction in my personal life. So that fueled the fire to go to university. When I graduated high school, I was already two years into my Earl’s career, and working full time in grade 12. I started off in Prince George and worked here for 12 years, and then in 2008 helped open Earl’s in Whitehorse, soon after becoming the general manager, and I did that for a year, and turned the business around to help make it a lot more successful. And then it got the attention of the owner of the Earl’s in Kamloops. So then I became the general manager there for five years . . . And I just made it my career, and it was awesome. I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change any of my past to get to where I am.

 Q: I imagine your path will be very inspiring to others.

A: I know it’ll inspire people, because I’ve seen my personal struggles in life — in changing my career and going in a completely different direction, coming back to Prince George and starting university at my age can show that age doesn’t really matter. You can stop and switch gears and go a completely different direction.


Thanks, Mark. You are quite inspiring. Your courage in taking a new path is admirable and sets an excellent example for others. We wish you all the best on your journey forward!

Amy Parker

Moving The Needle On Youth Mental Health In British Columbia

Q & A with Amy Parker, nursing student, Vancouver Island University

Growing up in Port McNeill, nursing student Amy Parker had plenty of opportunities to admire her own mother, who was a nurse before her. In their small town of 2000, Amy’s mother was well known and loved by the community of people she served. Amy wanted to contribute back in a similar way — so she worked her tail off to achieve the required 97% on her prerequisite courses, and enrolled at Vancouver Island University in the fall of 2015.

Being of Metis heritage, Amy was able to access funding to support her studies. The Irving K. Barber British Columbia Scholarship Society has provided her with $7500 over three years to pursue her studies. It is her hope that she can move the needle on youth mental health in the province, through research and cross-sector collaboration to provide better services to the kids who need it.We gave Amy a shout to dig a little deeper into her why.

Q: You say your mother is an inspiration for you taking the nursing path. Tell me a little bit more about what inspired your current studies.

A: My mom has been a nurse since she was about 19. She had three daughters and worked as a full time RN the entire time. And she just loves being a nurse. Every day she goes to work, she just absolutely loves it. And living in such a small town, people would talk to me about her being their nurse. Everyone just always had such positive things to say about how she impacted their lives. I wanted to be able to do that for other people, too.

Q: How did you hear about the Irving K. Barber British Columbia Scholarship Society Indigenous Award?

A: Through the Metis office in Nanaimo. My sister has a degree and she went through the process of contacting the Metis office about help with tuition. She had told me to do that too. So in my second year of nursing, I went to the office and asked what the process looked like, and then I asked about scholarships. So that was when [the woman who was working there] said that she would email me the list, which was really helpful.

Q: So where are your people from? Are you from the coast? Or from eastern Canada?

 A: It’s all very new to me. My grandfather, who was Metis, passed away when I was quite young. My dad just found out about it maybe seven or eight years ago. As I learned more about it, I’ve become connected with the Metis Youth of BC. I don’t know too much about my own family because my grandfather has passed away, so I wasn’t able to ask those questions, and my dad doesn’t know too much either. I’ve just been kind of trying to learn about the culture. I actually attended one of the youth workshops this summer in Vancouver. I got to learn about the culture and mental health, which is an area of nursing that I’m really interested in.

Q: I was just going to ask is that. Is that an area you’d like to pursue?

A: Yes, definitely. I knew I wanted to do something in mental health and addiction. There aren’t a ton of specialty courses for that right now; you just kind of make the connections with other nurses and other people who have done work in that area. So I’ve talked to a lot of nurses and social workers and child protection services workers, just to see how they’ve gotten to where they are.

Q: How does this award help you with your post-secondary education?

A: Oh, it helps so much. Nursing is very demanding, especially on your time. Working while you’re going to school . . . it’s almost not even doable. So receiving the award was so helpful to pay for extra costs like books. And in nursing, we have to supply our own scrubs, which can be really expensive, and a stethoscope. So that was just so great to receive.

Q: Tell me about some of the barriers that you’ve had to overcome on your path to where you are now.

A: I don’t really know if I would consider this a barrier, but before I started my last year of the program in September, I found that I was having a baby. She’s due a month after I finish school. I had a lot of other people who were in the nursing program tell me that I probably won’t be able to finish because I’m going to be pregnant during my preceptorship and it’s going to be really hard, but I was so determined to finish! So I’m finishing my degree hopefully in April, and then I’m going to take a couple months off to study for my final exam and be home with the baby. And then I’ll be able to work after. I’ve had different job offers in Campbell River, Parksville and Nanaimo. And my mom and my sisters and my grandparents and my dad are actually all in Parksville too.

Q: What challenges are you wanting to address through your work as a nurse?

A: The opioid crisis is huge right now in BC. There’s a lot of stigma and misconception around addictions and how they relate to mental health. There’s a common misconception that addiction isn’t a mental health issue, but it totally is. It’s a disease process that needs to be further looked into and evaluated. And I would really like to do research around that. I did take a specialty mental health course while I was in nursing. I wrote a research paper on an area of mental health I was interested in, looking at whether or not addiction is hereditary in families. I’m really interested in youth mental health, particularly in neuroscience and how the formation of the brain — the connections of the neurons and the pathways in the brain — makes certain people more susceptible to addiction.

Q: I assume there’s research out there on that. But you want you want to further it.

A: Yes. One of my cousins is a child protection service worker and I have another friend who’s a social worker. They work with kids and it’s such a big area that isn’t looked at when we’re looking at youth mental health. There aren’t a lot of resources available for youth and if there are, there’s a gap in knowledge of how we’re able to tell the youth that this information is available to them. Bridging the gap between the interdisciplinary team, working with social workers and child protection services and making sure that kids get the help they need is so huge.

Amy, thank you for being part of our Q&A. You’ve chosen an important and interesting path, and we’re grateful that you are going to bring more attention and knowledge to youth mental health in BC.

Cody Isaac

Leading by Example

Aboriginal Award recipient Cody Isaac shares his positive energy with young people the world over

When Cody Isaac got laid off in 2007 from the Okanagan sawmill where he had been working, he never dreamed that five years later he’d be running a school in China. “After losing my job at the sawmill and not really seeing any outlets in the small town of Vernon, I looked to broaden my horizons and see what the world had to offer,” says the enterprising 32-year-old. After making a few fact-finding phone calls and completing his Teaching English as a Second Language certification, the young man headed west, teaching for four years at a local school in Zhejiang province before partnering with the school’s administrator to open and operate his own school.

It was a perfect fit for a kid who’d always dreamed of making a career helping other people. “After teaching two or three years and seeing the progress of the children and seeing them grow up and use the language that they were learning, I was like, whoa,” Cody says. “It was such a rewarding job.” While in China, Cody also volunteered every week at a school for blind children, teaching them English through smell, touch, taste and sound. He was instrumental in a driving a fundraising campaign, too, to rebuild an earthquake-devastated school in rural Yunnan; the fundraising paid for the school, a teacher, and hot lunches for the children for an entire year.

But when his brother Jamie died in 2013, Cody felt the pull of home once again. “I just knew that it was the time I needed to go,” he says, “not only for myself but for my family’s sake. Because I knew that they were going to need help. I felt that we were going to need to be together to heal and process as a family.” He packed his bags and returned to the Okanagan in 2015, where he gathered his people close and turned his thoughts to how he could create a meaningful career closer to home. “I would really like to make an impact on my local community and on the kids that are growing up now,” he says. “Their parents are like my friends. I would like to be a part of their education.”

And so in 2017 he embarked on his Bachelor of Arts at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan), working toward a Bachelor of Education by 2022. He is grateful for the support of the Irving K. Barber British Columbia Scholarship Society for his schooling, having received a $2000 Aboriginal Student Award in 2017. “I found out [about the award] through my cousin Stacy, who’s a nursing student going to BCIT,” he says.

At university, Cody is specializing in the elementary route, having found it so rewarding to work with grade four and five children while he was teaching in China. “They’re like little sponges, so full of energy,” he says. “They really take it all in. If you’re an energetic teacher, the kids respond to that.”

Energetic is just one of many words that describe Cody. Positive and uplifting are a couple others — qualities he shares freely with whoever is around. On more than one occasion, Cody’s instructors have drawn him aside to comment on how he brightens everyone’s day with his presence and engagement. “I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older that I think it’s just my nature — my friends describe me as ‘glass three-quarters full’,” he laughs. “You can’t get caught up on small things, the shoulda coulda wouldas. You have to keep moving, and putting your best foot forward.”

 For more information, and to apply for an Aboriginal Student Award, visit