How’d you get that job? Samara talks to AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo’s advisor

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How'd You Get That Job? Wednesday, August 07, 2013 View Count = 2002

How’d you get that job? Samara talks to AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo’s advisor

Jeff Copenace, 34 years old from the Ojibways of Onegaming First Nation, is an advisor to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo.  Jeff formerly acted as an advisor to the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Paul Martin and played a key role in the negotiations that led to the Kelowna Accord.

1.     What made you want to get involved with politics?

I never grew up around politics nor did I have family or friends involved in politics.  I often tell a joke that when I was growing up, the most I knew about politics was that everyone seemed to hate the local mayor!

When I was in grade seven, my elementary school principal suggested that I apply to the Queen’s Park Legislative Page program
  – which neither I nor my parents knew anything about.  And I was accepted.  I was told that I was one of very few First Nations students that had ever been accepted by the program.  I spent a number of weeks in Toronto at the provincial legislature in grade eight – but I didn’t enjoy it.  Afterwards a local reporter wrote a story that said “no political future for Copenace”.

I flunked out of accounting in University and my best mark was in political science.  I started studying more about Indigenous peoples, particularly the history of Canada and First Nations - and I became quite passionate.

In 1999, I bought my first Liberal membership and in 2000, I was acclaimed to the Liberal Party of Canada National Executive.  I recall giving a good speech at the Biennial Convention.  That same day, I had dinner with the Right Honourable Jean Chretien and one of my heroes, Elijah Harper.  I was only twenty one years old and really had no idea what was going on.

2.     How did you become an advisor to the National Chief? What path brought you to that specific role?

My current role is to advise Assembly of First Nations National Chief Atleo.  He is elected by 600+ First Nations leaders across the country.  Most of my work involves traveling the country with him as he visits First Nations communities from coast to coast to coast.

It truly is the coolest job I’ve ever had.  In fact, I recall being a teenager and telling a teacher that my dream job would be to travel the country, to see all of our different First Nations communities, elders, cultures, and teachings.  And I get to do it.  My friend jokes to me "You get paid to go to powwows?!"

Most importantly, it provides me with an opportunity to impact positive change directly given the poverty - and in many cases, third-world conditions - that so many First Nations families and children face everyday living in Canada.   As a child, I remember my family taking in dozens and dozens of First Nations foster children.  While some succeeded, too many did not make it and too many of their stories were tragic.  My hope is that in the future, no First Nations child has to face the challenges that our previous generations have faced.

But I also get to witness positive change every day.  As National Chief rightfully points out philanthropic organizations like Right to Play, the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, Habitat for Humanity and Free the Children have all turned their attention from Africa and South America to improving the lives of First Nations in Canada's own backyard - and more and more Canadians are joining them.

3.     What was your favourite moment as an advisor?

As we land in remote communities, we are often greeted by dozens and dozens of First Nations children who carry signs and posters that read "we want a school" or "we want a playground".  Yet despite the living conditions they often find themselves within, they are always excited and have a glimmer of hope in their eyes.

National Chief Atleo tells the story of ten-year old Jayden that we met who lives in Garden River First Nation in northern Manitoba.  He lives in a shed, with no running water or electricity - with nine other family members.  They have blankets hanging for a door and a slop pail outside for their toilet.   But Jayden is so proud because his grandfather is proud of his grades and he is doing well in school.  He wants to graduate and have a job when he grows up.  Jayden is succeeding despite all the odds.

I think of "Flat" Malcolm, who traveled with National Chief and I last year.  "Real" Malcolm is an 11-year old First Nations child who wanted to know what being National Chief is like - because he and his classmates want to be leaders - and maybe even become National Chief some day!

4.     What skills or experience are required for this job?

I think finding a passion is extremely important to have a fulfilling career in politics.  It really should be about making a difference.  I remember Prime Minister Harper's apology to Residential School victims and survivors in 2008.  I honestly didn't think it would affect me.  I thought "here goes another political speech!"

But as the words began to flow, I found myself overcome with emotion as I thought about how my mother and my aunts raised me traditionally, brought me to powwows and ceremonies, prepared my regalia and taught me about my history and traditional teachings.

And then I thought about the thousands and thousands of First Nations children that were literally ripped away from their families and communities and we're robbed of that experience - and forced to residential schools throughout the past century.

I recall writing a paper in university which documented the history of Canadian legislation and policy towards First Nations peoples - and as I finished typing the last paragraph, I thought to myself: "Oh my god.  That's why we're like this!"

But once again times are changing.  While we only had dozens of First Nations enrolled in post-secondary education institutions in the 1950's, today we celebrate First Nations doctors, Hollywood and Nashville superstars, professional hockey players, lawyers, political leaders and educators.  According to the intent of residential schools - which was "to kill the Indian in the child" - First Nations aren't even supposed to be here.  But here we are.

5.     What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Have fun!  First Nations veteran and elder Alex Van Bibber - now in his late 90's - said the secret to his successful life is that he "worked hard and played hard".  Also be kind.  An important rule that I have learned is "make yourself look ten times better by making those around you look a hundred times better!"  Lastly, take advantage of every opportunity - but most importantly, always remember who you are and where you come from.

My favorite teaching is from Treaty #3 - the Anishinabe Nation.  For Treaty #3, education was a deal-breaker.  But education for the Anishinabe Nation was not just about classrooms, text books or libraries.  Education was about life, relationships and harmony.

The teaching is that "I will take your child and I will teach them what is good about us.  And you will take my child and you will teach them what is good about you."

"Then when they return, they will teach us what is good about each other - and how to live together and respect each other.  If you agree to these terms, I will shake your hand."

As National Chief Atleo states often, that is the collective vision that we are all trying to achieve.  And despite our conflicted history, I see a positive future for all of us together in Canada.  Meegwetch.

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