Sonia Prevost-Derbecker is motivated every day by the young Indigenous people she’s met throughout her career. She’s been the CEO of the largest child welfare agency in Manitoba, the National Vice-President of Education at Indspire, a school trustee with the largest school division in Winnipeg and founded Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre and a school for at risk youth.
We spoke with her about National Indigenous History Month, and the systems she believes can change lives.
What drives your work? Why is this area of work so interesting to you?
If you were to put a group of Indigenous Executive Directors in a room that are around my age, and ask them to put their hand up if they were impacted by child welfare, the education system, or the justice system, pretty well everyone would have a hand up for all of them. And I’m no different. These systems have hugely impacted my life, and I know that if they’re functioning, they have a great ability to impact the lives of our kids and our families. If they’re not functioning, they negatively impact. That’s why I’m drawn to the work, and I certainly do understand the education system and the child welfare system quite well.
If there’s a program or a project that’s working within the education system or the child welfare system, I bring the lens of an Indigenous person with experience. I also think I bring a strong lens of integration of systems, which is really important. Our history is different, all of our histories as Canadians is different. And so the context that you start with, and walk with, is really important to take into consideration when you’re looking at funding programs or making policy decisions. When we’re not looking at that context, in the ways that we should be, or if we’re not integrating programs when there may be an opportunity to, then we fail to insure our programs are accessible and meeting the real needs.
What stories do you carry with you of times when you’ve seen your work make a difference?
There are so many things that are working, which is really great. More than ever before kids are graduating from high school now, and going to university. We’re developing a level of leader that was rarely in existance a few years ago.
I can think of a thousand individual kids that have benefitted from second chances. I’m reminded of Ndinawe, which included a large youth shelter as one of the services they offered, and I’m reminded of the power found in helping support kids through systems like child welfare, right through to university to become doctors. Kids from child welfare, who have experienced real brokenness and multiple barriers, can achieve greatness.
When we started our school, people were really shocked that our test scores were so high. Many of these kids had been kicked out, and were missing months of school at the time of entry. But many of these kids were really quite bright, and if they were afforded the right kind of opportunity, did very well academically. Lots of those kids reintegrated into the high school system and achieved good outcomes. I run into them now, and they have families and jobs, and they’re contributing members of society, giving back as real leaders would.
What does National Indigenous History Month mean to you?
I often say it’s our rightful time to take our rightful place, and our rightful responsibility. Which means that we don’t just take up a place at the table without looking at the true responsibilities we have to our communities, and for all people that we’re impacting. But it is our rightful time. It’s time to start walking it, and supporting our communities, because the power is ours to take now.
National Indigenous History Month is affirming that we’re starting to see consideration for Indigenous people not just as an afterthought, we are now included in the paradigm, we are on the agenda . I think it’s really wonderful that National Indigenous History Month is encouraging conversations about Indigenous history and reconciliation in schools, with and without Indigenous kids in the classroom. It means that non-Indigenous and Indigenous people are becoming allies. There is a recognition that your kids and my kids will one day play together so we need to work through our relationship now. I think we’re reclaiming our histories, we’re reconciling our contexts, and we’re re-establishing our relationships from more of an equal power base. And that’s wonderful.
What advice do you have for non-Indigenous women and girls who are looking for ways to work towards reconciliation?
I think the key is to build a relationship with an Indigenous person in your world. We’re not that scary. Go and find an Indigenous friend, and get to know them.
Sonia Prevost-Derbecker is joint owner of Agassiz Professional Services, where she provides expertise on government and Indigenous relations, Indigenous education, and child welfare.
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