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Alumni POV
The Big Idea, a graphic illustration with grafitti lettering and imagery.
collage by Kathryn Carnegie [BFA(Hons)/08]

Sound Off

Looking to our post-pandemic future, we invited notable alumni to share a big idea. Here’s what they said about economic reconciliation and why we need a binge-worthy Netflix drama about engineers.


WHO I AM: A poor Cree boy from northern Manitoba who managed to get a postgraduate finance certificate from Harvard. I’m also CEO of NationFUND, a firm that grows the balance sheets of First Nations communities through projects that increase assets and revenue. Ultimately, we’re working to eliminate poverty in Indigenous communities in Canada.

WHY I GOT INTO THIS FIELD: My home community, what is now known as O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (formerly South Indian Lake), was flooded by Manitoba Hydro’s Nelson River diversion in 1974. Once pulling in a million pounds of whitefish a year, the local fisheries were destroyed. I was 14 when the community received financial settlements from the government. The money was dispersed to lawyers, consultants and survivors, and quickly dried up. Knowing what I know now, I think I could have helped.

WHAT THE PANDEMIC HAS BROUGHT TO LIGHT: Given First Nations’ success in recent years in tourism, retail gas, hospitality and gaming—which have all been hit particularly hard—it’s highlighted the need for diversification in our investment portfolios.

MY BIG IDEA: Indigenous communities will achieve economic equality by owning major infrastructure.

Busch Brothers Vermiculture. That’s what my sons—ages four, eight and 10—call their company. They run a worm farm out of our basement, feeding their leftover vegetables to these slimy creatures they first collect after a good spring rain. Come summer, they go down to the docks near our home here at Westbank First Nations, a community in southern B.C., and sell their worms to the fishermen.

Their business cards are made from compostable cardboard, embedded with basil seeds. When their customers plant the cards, they’ll get a little basil bush in a couple of weeks. It’s smart, sustainable, and it follows an Indigenous concept that we learn by doing.

When we talk economics and wealth creation in Canada, Indigenous Peoples are far too often left out of the conversation. I want my children to be part of a growing movement that sees Indigenous communities owning major infrastructure across this country. It’s a critical step towards economic equality.

As CEO of NationFUND, I work with First Nations who right now are exploring equity ownership on the Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C. In northern Manitoba, there are others trying to gain ownership of the Omnitrax rail line to Churchill. Another fantastic example is the Wataynikaneyap powerline, now owned in partnership by about 22 First Nations in northwest Ontario. They’re able to use the dividends to start to alleviate some of the social problems they’re grappling with in that region.

We are reimagining First Nations and breaking from the colonial narrative that we’re impoverished communities and wards of the state as the legislation under the Indian Act—one of our greatest barriers—would have you believe. We are functioning governments and a growing number of communities are developing their own local economy to stop the bleeding and draw in revenue from outside. If there’s going to be something new going on, we’d like an opportunity to be a part of it.

What we’ve seen in the last few years is a reawakening of Indigenous Peoples as real leaders in regional and national economies. A lot of that development was made possible by an organization most people have never heard of: the First Nations Finance Authority. I was employed there for nearly eight years. We ensured Indigenous communities could acquire capital, by accessing the international bond market. Financings have already exceeded a billion dollars in loans, used for a mindboggling variety of projects: hotels, retail fuel, gaming, golf courses—just about everything. The $200 million borrowed in Manitoba has actually had a $1.2 billion impact on the province over the last five years. It’s created this whole energy and excitement of What’s going on there?

Looking ahead 20 years, my hope is First Nations will be on equal footing with non-Indigenous municipalities and provinces, and be seen as an emerging market within a first-world economy. That their need to develop infrastructure and economies is viewed as an opportunity for provinces to boom. I think a lot of people have the attitude that First Nations are generally anti-development and that’s not true—they’re anti-exclusion.

But we’re also long-term thinkers in business, focused not on the next fiscal quarter but the next seven generations. Any project undertaken by a First Nation generally gives you a front-row seat to environmental stewardship. Worrying about our carbon footprint is something we’ve been talking about for the last 150 years, long before industry was considering their influence on climate change. There’s an opportunity there for us to share our worldview.

In the next 50 years, wealth could shift considerably to Indigenous communities. It could be very significant. And I hope that’s the case. But Canadians need to know wealth creation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, that somehow my gain is your loss.

The biggest barrier to economic reconciliation? Systemic racism. We can all get more prosperous if we work together. It’s the working against each other that’s caused most of the conflict—this idea that: Well, if I make $1 then somehow you’re losing $1. No, I want to make $1 and then buy your product or service so that you get $1 too. And that’s it. That’s an economy at work.

I remember when…

I was a UM student and had Fred Shore [MA/83, PhD/91] as a professor in the department of Native studies. He taught a course called Aboriginal People in Canada. During our first class, he asked: “Why does the course name say in Canada and not of Canada?”

I responded: “Aboriginal people of Canada makes it sound like we’re property of Canada. Whereas, Aboriginal people in Canada means: We’re here. And, you know, you have to deal with us.”

He answered: “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

My advice to new UM Native Studies grads…

Specialize. An undergraduate degree in Native studies provides a great academic base but you need to think about what precise role you want to play. Continuing on to a post-graduate degree—whether it’s in law, business or education or something else—will reduce how long it takes to climb the ladder by a decade or more.


MARCIA FRIESEN [BSc(AE)/95, MEd/03, PhD/09]

The dean of the Price Faculty of Engineering at UM. I helped develop a qualifications recognition program for internationally educated engineers new to Canada—the first of its kind in the country. More recently, I’ve focused on bringing sustainable design and Indigenous knowledges into curriculum. I grew up in Winnipeg and South America, where my father was a member of the clergy and my mother was a teacher.

WHY I GOT INTO THIS FIELD: I wish I had a cool story about how I would take apart toys or toasters as a kid to see how they work—I don’t. What I did have was a former engineer as a high school teacher who was a big cheerleader for the profession.

WHAT THE PANDEMIC HAS BROUGHT TO LIGHT: A lot of things we might consider only to be health issues have engineering fundamentals. Think about vaccine development and its reliance on supercomputers to analyze drug libraries and data, and share information—those are all engineering systems that made such rapid development possible. The same goes for the production and distribution of billions of doses.

MY BIG IDEA: We’ll increase the number of women in engineering only once we stop ignoring key gaps.

The minutiae of gun powder residue and blood splatter got everyone’s attention.

When the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoff series captured the public’s imagination in forensics, universities reported an increase in inquiries and applications to science faculties. They called it the CSI effect.

The power of popular culture to influence interest and cause an influx into a particular discipline shouldn’t be underestimated. Many of us have built our understanding of various professions through our media consumption. The plethora of series in police, fire, and paramedic work, and legal and medical dramas make us feel we know what these professionals do.

But scan today’s options for binge-watching and engineering is nowhere to be found. We need engineers to show up frequently, and engagingly, in pop culture so the profession feels less like an oddity. How about a drama where engineers are grappling with complex projects and demanding clients, where we see the ups and downs of trying and failing and trying again? Normalizing an invisible profession would grow intrigue about a field largely lacking women.  

So far, we’ve paid a lot of attention to only a narrow sliver of things that matter when it comes to increasing the participation of women in engineering and technology education. By doing this, we’re actually ignoring some pretty important things. 

The momentum that’s been building toward gender equity in engineering so far has been, in part, motivated by changing labour market demographics and the ongoing high demand for engineers. This momentum is also fueled by Engineers Canada’s 30 By 30 campaign, which has a goal of raising the ratio of newly licensed female engineers to 30 per cent by 2030. This figure is universally held as the tipping point for sustainable change. 

We tend to look at university programs, like the Price Faculty of Engineering, and ask: What are we doing to increase the number of young women in engineering studies? Admittedly this deserves attention both from the recruitment and retention perspectives. How we deliver our programs, the environment we cultivate, and the image of the profession we present are all part of this agenda. Increasingly, we’ve also looked at high school and middle school populations to build awareness of engineering among girls and encourage them to have the confidence to join the profession.

But what about the swath of time that comes after university? We know that, historically, female representation in engineering practice is consistently lower than in engineering studies, meaning we’re losing women in the field at various points. We know they’re “leaking out of the pipeline.” What we don’t know is why. If 23 per cent of UM engineering students are female, yet less than 10 per cent of professional engineers are female, that’s a problem we need to look at more closely. We also have data to show that time alone doesn’t fix this gap.

Often, we have struck a committee of women to fix women’s underrepresentation in engineering. This seems ineffective. While it’s important to create women-only spaces (or Indigenous-only spaces or newcomer-only spaces) to allow people to safely share experiences and support, it is also important to bring those who hold structural power into the conversation as change agents. It’s only recently that we have recognized this and have begun to include men. 

We’ve also focused on developing initiatives such as mentoring, training seminars and workshops that teach women to “lean in,” and we’ve sought gender diversity on boards and committees for the sake of the diversity itself. What if instead we build initiatives by first checking on the foundation? This foundation is whether people actually trust the environment they’re about to navigate, whether that’s on boards, in universities or at workplaces.

We need to nurture a feeling not unlike when you come home, walk through your door and do a really deep exhale, knowing you’re safe there. Do we feel like we have to watch what we say? Do we have to be on guard? Or do we feel like this is our turf, these are our people, and we belong?

Trust engenders belonging, which leads to engagement. Once we feel attached, we invest and give our best contributions, of which each one of us is uniquely qualified.

We rarely talk about underrepresentation as an issue of belonging and what actions build and also erode this sense of belonging. Yet, that is the pathway from diversity (being at the table) to inclusion (having a voice that is heard at the table). 

I remember when…

As a first-year engineering student at UM in 1991, I attended a memorial service in what is now E3-EITC for the 14 women who had been murdered two years prior at the École Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal. It felt so fresh and I looked around and realized it happened in a building just like this, in an environment just like this.  


Take that flexibility, resilience and enthusiasm you’ve shown while learning through a pandemic into your workplace. Be open to new parts of the profession you may never have thought of before. A career is long. You can try a lot of different things and that’s exactly what you’ll find in a profession this diverse.

What’s your big idea? We want to hear from alumni! alumni [at] umanitoba [dot] ca

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