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Clairissa Kelly “Walking Buffalo Woman” (Bear Clan)

September 2016

Clairissa Kelly “Walking Buffalo Woman” (Bear Clan) photo

  • Home Community:
    Peguis First Nation, MB
  • Manitoba Cultural Identity:
    Annishinabe from Treaty # 1
  • Position:
    Peguis Post-Secondary Transition Program, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg
  • Education/Training:
    B.A., B.Ed. – University of Winnipeg
  • Roles/Responsibilty:
    As Coordinator of the Peguis Post-Secondary Transition Program at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, I am responsible for the planning, delivery and management of this unique program that assists its First Nation students transition into post-secondary education in an urban setting. This is accomplished by working to meet the needs of the students, particularly the mental, physical, social/emotional and spiritual needs. Day to day tasks include coordinating academic and extra-curricular programming, recruiting qualified staff to join the transition team, one-on-one counselling with students, direct teaching includes academic upgrading, goal setting and career exploration. Full administration of program including the development of policies and procedures, records management and maintenance of relationships with partners/stakeholders, and communicating results back to the community.
“Be fearless and embrace every positive opportunity that comes your way...”

What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
As a child, my family moved around a lot. During my elementary years, I had transferred schools 10 times. When I was in 8th grade, I went to 3 different schools. The most stability I’ve had in my education was when I attended university. For someone who has had to move and transfer so many times, I learned to become adaptable and resilient to change.  Intergenerational impacts of residential schools impacted me too including being in the care of CFS for a short time, witnessing family violence, parental alcoholism… you name it, I’ve been through it. Being raised in poverty had its challenges too but it was a huge motivator for me because life shouldn’t just be about surviving; it’s about thriving.

One significant obstacle that I faced in my educational journey was during my final year of high school; I become addicted to Crystal Meth. As a result, I dropped out of high school when I was only 5 credits away from graduation. If it wasn’t for my teacher Brain McKinnon, I am not sure I would have been able to quit on my own. With his help and with the help of my mentors at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, I was able to get clean. When I was ready, I went back to school to complete my grade 12 and went straight into University. It was a tough transition to go back to school after getting used to working fulltime; I had other commitments outside of school that took my attention away from my studies but I knew that if I worked hard, I would see positive changes in my life.

What or who inspired you to really go after the profession you are in now?
I have been fortunate to have a few key mentors in my life who inspired me and helped me grow into the professional that I am today. I would first like to acknowledge the first teacher who discovered my artistic abilities; Tim Barkley (who was my drama teacher at William Whyte Community School). Tim showed me that teachers who put in the extra work with students really do make a difference. He went above and beyond his job duties to get me involved with theatre and I am forever grateful for that. I knew that I needed to become a teacher so that I can make the same difference in another students’ life as he had for me. My mentor in theatre Columpa Bobb was another source of inspiration for me. She provided me with the opportunity to develop myself artistically and professionally. It was through her that I gained the confidence to seek and embrace every opportunity available to me. I was Program Administrator for the Aboriginal Arts Training and Mentorship Program when I made the decision to go to university to pursue my education degree. While she was sad to see me leave, she fully supported me all the way. Last but not least, my current mentor/friend/colleague June Montour has always been and continues to be a role model for me. June, who is an educator herself, inspired me to follow in her footsteps and was instrumental in helping me become an independent young professional.

What critical choices or decisions did you make that helped you get where you are today?
Before I decided to go to University, I had a budding career in the arts. I was a talented actress who had much potential to become a successful artist. Making the decision to go to university meant that I had to temporarily walk away from that life. It was very hard because I was involved with acting since the age of 10. I attempted to be part of a show during my 2nd or 3rd year of university but I became overwhelmed with the script and rehearsal schedule. I knew that I couldn’t spread myself too thin so I decided not to take part in that production. Sometimes, I still miss those carefree days of being an actress and all the fun that comes with performing, travelling and being an artist.

Message of Encouragement:
Be fearless and embrace every positive opportunity that comes your way because you never know where it may take you!