Getting to Know You: Dr. Robyn Bourgeois

This profile of Dr. Robin Bourgeois originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of The Beacon.

Getting to Know You:  Dr. Robyn Bourgeois joins Coady’s Indigenous Women in Community Leadership Program

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of the women are on the ground. Then it’s done no matter how strong the warriors or how sharp the weapons.” — Cheyenne proverb.

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Photo of Dr. Robyn Bourgeois (right) and Caitlyn Tolley (left), a graduate of the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership Program (IWCL). Photo Credit: Caitlyn Tolley

Dr. Robyn Bourgeois moved to Antigonish this spring with her husband, Aaron, and two children, 3 year old Raylena and nearly 2 year old Marvel. Initially she wasn’t sure whether the town or her new position as Senior Program Teaching Staff with the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership Program were going to be a good fit. Four months later, Robyn expressed her belief that “I don’t think we’ve ever been so happy. Everyone is so nice”.

Work has also proven to be a pleasant surprise.

“The best experience I’ve ever had, ever, in the classroom. You see that light bulb, see a student really get it,” Robyn said. “These [instances] are few and far between in the university settings I’ve been in so far, but in this program you see it constantly. [It’s] the PhDs and the MAs and everything else are definitely going to contribute, but on the ground, practical community skills are what we’re needing”.

Robyn’s career almost never had the chance to get off the ground. 

Soon after enrolling in university, Robyn was forced into prostitution by her then-boyfriend. Fed a steady diet of drugs and forced to worked the streets, Robyn only managed to escape following a violent altercation. She spent the next six months hiding out, kicking her drug habit, and laying low. Though she still lives in fear, Robyn believes that being open about her story makes her a harder target.

Recognizing this second chance, Robyn, in her words, “devoted herself to changing the world”. She studied at UBC-Okanagan and was encouraged to become a professor. At this time, she became involved in activism, particularly around missing and murdered aboriginal women and human trafficking, and began working with different indigenous groups around the country. “Growing up, we weren’t really supported in celebrating or acknowledging our indigenous ancestry.”  Activism allowed Robyn to reconnect with her community and culture, and drove her to pursue a PhD in Social Justice Education with a focus on indigenous studies from the University of Toronto.

This desire to combine activism with scholarship let her to Coady. Established in 2011 and offered by the Coady International Institute’s International Centre for Women’s Leadership, the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership Program supports indigenous women’s capacity to lead, and develop their community’s capacity for self-determination. Eligible to all First Nations, Métis, or Inuit women legally entitled to work in Canada, the program welcomed 21 participants to Coady this May. Participants were taught Coady tools such as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and the Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) during the residency period and, during the fieldwork aspect of the course, used these tools to examine their communities and create a profile. “Individual women get leadership training [and] solid on the ground skills we can use in our communities, [that are] also spiritually driven by our cultural teaching and practices,” Robyn explains.

During the last week of May, accomplished indigenous women from across the country join the course to serve as mentors as participants develop projects. There are significant barriers to implementing the projects and participants can learn from mentors who have also faced struggles and barriers in their work to make positive change in their communities.

The course is “indigenous-centred, spiritually driven by cultural teachings and practices…and committed to supporting the communities,” Robyn notes. “It is a course rooted in not only social change, but social enterprise, community economic development, becoming self-determining in all capacities: economics, social, political, spiritual… It’s really indigenous-centred. Nothing like this exists.”

To learn more about the Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program, please visit: http://coady.stfx.ca/themes/women/IWCL/.

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