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Ontario Tech acknowledges the lands and people of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.

We are thankful to be welcome on these lands in friendship. The lands we are situated on are covered by the Williams Treaties and are the traditional territory of the Mississaugas, a branch of the greater Anishinaabeg Nation, including Algonquin, Ojibway, Odawa and Pottawatomi. These lands remain home to many Indigenous nations and peoples.

We acknowledge this land out of respect for the Indigenous nations who have cared for Turtle Island, also called North America, from before the arrival of settler peoples until this day. Most importantly, we acknowledge that the history of these lands has been tainted by poor treatment and a lack of friendship with the First Nations who call them home.

This history is something we are all affected by because we are all treaty people in Canada. We all have a shared history to reflect on, and each of us is affected by this history in different ways. Our past defines our present, but if we move forward as friends and allies, then it does not have to define our future.

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Ontario Tech workshop helps Indigenous student align passion with entrepreneurship

Ontario Tech University alumna Lena McNeill (Bachelor of Health Sciences (Medical Laboratory Science), class of 2020).
Ontario Tech University alumna Lena McNeill (Bachelor of Health Sciences (Medical Laboratory Science), class of 2020).

Understanding your personal gifts and talents is one of the secrets to successful entrepreneurship. Knowing the passion that drives you builds your confidence and allows you to channel your energy into developing a business that brings you fulfilment.

Ontario Tech University alumna Lena McNeill (Bachelor of Health Sciences (Medical Laboratory Science), class of 2020) learned this while participating in a recent university-led entrepreneurship workshop for Indigenous students.

Lena, who is of Inuit heritage, has been interested in art, especially cartoons and 2D animation, for as long as she can remember.

“Drawing has been my main passion for a long time and has served as a way for me to express myself and my feelings all my life,” says Lena.

After finishing high school, Lena completed a year-long art fundamentals course at the college level.

“I loved the course, but having to work on projects and in mediums that didn't interest me took a lot of the fun out of it.” So she temporarily set aside art to pursue another passion: science.

During her final year at Ontario Tech, Lena started thinking about becoming more involved in art again and pursuing business opportunities in digital art or animation. But she wasn’t sure where to begin.

Lena decided to enrol in Ontario Tech’s Brilliant Incubator: Indigenous Start workshop. The university’s Indigenous Education and Cultural Services (IECS) team, in collaboration with Brilliant Catalyst, the university’s experiential learning and entrepreneurship centre, recently launched Indigenous Start to provide structured support to Indigenous students and alumni. Indigenous Start helps participants:

  • Develop a business idea.
  • Receive one-on-one support from local Indigenous business owners.
  • Learn to use their strengths and gifts.
  • Access practical resources, connections, funding opportunities and mentorship from industry experts. 

The workshop is rooted in traditional Indigenous teachings to help students recognize their strengths and live their unique success stories. The content of the workshop includes videos of personal success stories from Indigenous business owners, teaching from a Traditional Knowledge Keeper, and Medicine Wheel teaching. Participants also reflect on the ‘Four Rs’ model for Indigenizing education, developed by renowned Indigenous scholars Verna J. Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt:

  • Respect First Nations cultural integrity.
  • Provide education that is relevant to First Nations perspectives and experience.
  • Foster reciprocal relationships.
  • Demonstrate responsibility through participation.

For the one-on-one support portion of the workshop, Lena connected over the phone with Amanda Kindzierski, an Indigenous artist, storyteller and media designer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who answered Lena’s questions and provided mentorship.

“Amanda is one of the coolest people I have ever met,” says Lena. “She has done so much and overcome so many challenges. Hearing her story and experiences, what she has gone through only to come out stronger, is very inspirational! She gave me her own thoughts on entrepreneurship, in particular how things are for Indigenous business owners. She gave me a lot to think about and a different perspective when approaching my goals and hopes for the future. Just knowing that I have her support as I move forward is very reassuring.”

Afterward, Lena completed a reflective assignment that tells her story in visual format (pictured below), using the Four Rs model as a guide.

“The great thing about the assignment is that it was intentionally left very open, so I chose to express it through art,” says Lena. “I've learned through teachers at the university's Baagwating Indigenous Student Centre about the importance of rocks and how they are the oldest things on the planet. I'm very fortunate to have lived on the shores of Lake Ontario for most of my life, so I thought, ‘Why not paint these concepts onto the lake's stones?’”

Lena selected eight stones—one large and seven smaller ones—and painted a scene on each one that represents what she learned about her strengths.

“You often hear of embracing your strengths and applying them, but it can be difficult to actually pinpoint them,” says Lena. “Being involved in this workshop gave me a good excuse to sit down and seriously reflect. Through the resources offered to me, I was able to identify particular traits: specifically, my empathy, optimism, appreciation for the kindness of others, passion for art and science, and my own little place in the world.”

Lena presented her assignment to Kindzierski, as well as IECS staff; Sarah Rasile, Director, Student Success, Office of Student Life; and the Brilliant leadership team, which included Karen Zavitz, Manager, Brilliant Catalyst, and Osman Hamid, Director, Creativity and Entrepreneurship, Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation.

Lena is currently participating in the four-month summer Brilliant Incubator program, which focuses on helping participants develop their venture and expand their entrepreneurial skills.

“The Indigenous Start workshop gave me the confidence to move forward,” she says. “I felt way better going into the main Brilliant Incubator session armed with what I had already learned and reflected on. By identifying my strengths as well as the areas that I need to improve on, I'm able to correctly direct my efforts where they are most needed. I am better prepared not just for entrepreneurial challenges, but also for the challenges of life ahead.”