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Joanne Dallaire receives Aboriginal Affairs Award

By Will Sloan

Kristyn Wong-Tam and Joanne Dallaire

Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (left) with Ryerson Elder Joanne Dallaire at the 2015 Access Equity and Human Rights Awards. Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto.

When she was a single mom in her 30s – years before becoming the campus Elder and traditional counsellor for Ryerson’s aboriginal community – Joanne Dallaire had a life-changing experience: she went back to school.

“That really re-routed my life from doing work that was okay, and put me into the social service sector into the work that I love,” she remembered. “It was a lot of dedication from friends keeping me on track. There were times when I had just two hours of sleep for two or three days a week, and I had people who would call me and call me until I was up.”

How did she make it through? “I think if you really want something, you can put your mind on it and do it. When I look back on it, even a year after I finished I thought: how did I even do that? But I see that with the students here: they just do what they have to do, and that’s just the way it is.”

Thirty years later, Dallaire, Shadow Hawk Woman of the Wolf Clan, a Cree Omushkego with ancestry from Attawapiskat, Ontario, is among the most respected aboriginal leaders. Twice in the past month, she has been honoured for her career: first on November 18, when she received an Award for Courage from the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation; next on Dec. 2, when she received the Aboriginal Affairs Award from the City of Toronto’s 2015 Access and Human Rights Awards: The awards called attention to her lengthy history in counseling, advising and education, as well as empowering and capacity building with Toronto’s aboriginal community. “It’s recognition of my life’s work and the impact it has on the community,” said Dallaire.

Over her three-decade career, Dallaire has worked with organizations ranging from Ministry of Health Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to several First Nations and social service agencies, helping to bridge the divide between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.

Since 2005, she has worked at Ryerson as Elder for the Aboriginal Education Council in the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives,  and as traditional counsellor in Aboriginal Student Services. She has overseen educational events and ceremonies (including the 2012 Eagle Staff presentation ceremony); gathered data from Ryerson for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Denise O’Neil Green; helped infuse indigenous knowledge in the curriculum; and worked directly with Ryerson’s growing aboriginal community as a counsellor.

When asked how her work has changed over the years, Dallaire said, “Human conditions are always human conditions. The issues are still the same, but it’s gotten easier because I think mental health concerns have less stigma. More people are seeking help and coming in invested in having real change, instead of me having to spend a fair amount of time in getting people to be okay with the process.”

For Dallaire, Ryerson has been a progressive working environment. “I’ve worked in big institutions several times over my career. Ryerson is one of the best big institutions I’ve ever worked in. I really feel that Ryerson offers a community of friendship and family, and I’m really appreciative of that.”