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Aboriginal Canadian Intracultural Experience

Aboriginal Canadian Intracultural Experience

Posted by Bruce McDougall on July 28, 2014

Laura Arngna’naaq recently passed a grueling set of accounting exams and now works as a junior accountant for Brookfield Properties in Toronto.

At 25, Arngna’naaq may seem no more exceptional than thousands of other young, well-educated Canadians as they embark on their professional lives. But in Arngna’naaq’s birthplace of Baker Lake, 2,500 km north of Toronto, in Nunavut, three-quarters of Inuit people don’t finish high school, fewer than 5% obtain a university degree and, until Arngna’naaq came along, none of them had ever obtained a masters degree in management and professional accounting (MMPA). (By comparison more than two-thirds of non-aboriginals in Canada finish high school, 27% obtain a university degree and more than 700 have completed the MMPA program since it began in 1999.)

“Education has less value in the north,” says Arngna’naaq. “And if your peers aren’t looking towards going to college or university, then you’re less inclined to go.”

Half Inuit on her father’s side, Arngna’naaq spent her early years in Baker Lake, then Yellowknife. Her mother was a first-grade teacher, while her father was an influential figure in local government affairs, serving as a renewable resources minister and Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Northwest Territories.

At the age of 12, Arngna’naaq moved south with her parents to Kingston, Ontario, but even then, her future wasn’t assured. In the middle of high school, she hit a self-described “rough patch” and saw no reason to continue her studies. If her mother hadn’t insisted that she stick with the academic stream, she might have abandoned her education.

Since she had to stay in school anyway, Arngna’naaq started looking at financial programs designed to do what her mother had already done: encourage First Nations kids to finish their education. “I began to appreciate that Aboriginal peoples have amazing educational opportunities,” she says.

After high school, Arngna’naaq tapped into these programs: yearly stipends from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation of as much as $14,000; a $3,000 Sun Life financial scholarship from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business; a $4,000 scholarship from the Royal Bank of Canada’s Aboriginal Student Awards Program, and several $2,500 Nunavut Beneficiaries Scholarships.

The money helped Arngna’naaq to complete her undergraduate degree at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario, where she was the Aboriginal Student Ambassador, working with the aboriginal recruiter for new and returning students, and to pursue post-graduate work in 2011 as the first aboriginal student ever to enroll in the 27-month MMPA program at the University of Toronto.

Straddling two cultures, Arngna’naaq prepares financial information and assists with audit and tax requirements for Brookfield Properties, while serving as a director of the Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto. Recently recognized by the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, Arngna’naaq says she feels a strong connection to Yellowknife, where she spent her elementary-school years and where her older sister, Sarah, recently became one of the few lawyers in the city who grew up in Canada’s North. But she has also lost her facility for speaking Inuktitut and, although she stays in touch with her father, older brother and other relatives in Baker Lake, she hasn’t traveled there since she was 15.

Amidst the bustle of Toronto’s 3 million people, Arngna’naaq seldom encounters another Inuit. “Once in front of the Eaton Centre,” she says, “this guy came up to me and said ‘hey, you’re an Inuk — what’s going on?’ It was great.

“But it can be difficult trying to balance the different aspects of life when you spend the weekend building a traditional kayak and the week walking across Bay Street in a suit.”

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