At Red River College, we’re used to being a part of people’s “first times” — whether it’s their first time pursuing post-secondary education, their first time earning a diploma or degree, or their first time finding meaningful work in a rich and rewarding field.
But just as often, we’re lucky enough to be part of people’s non-academic “firsts” — as with RRC grad Joe Thompson, who just this year chose the College’s annual Graduation Pow Wow as the site of his first traditional dance.
“I’ve participated in their graduations before, but this year I actually danced for the very first time,” says Thompson, who graduated from RRC’s ACCESS Business Administration program in 1989, and works as a Recruitment and Diversity Advisor for Manitoba Hydro.
“I chose Red River College for my first time dancing at a traditional Pow Wow because (the College) meant something very important to me now and in the past. I thought, ‘What better place to start than here?'”
A former resident of the community of Duck Bay (Pine Creek First Nation member), Thompson’s first job was working for the mining company Inco Ltd., in Thompson, Man.
He moved to Winnipeg when he was 23, and heard about RRC’s Business Administration program while completing his high school credentials at the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre.
“I just needed to do more,” says Thompson. “I wanted more education, and I was starting a new family. That’s what prompted me to make sure I was providing for my family.”
“I’ve always been interested in business. My grandfather was a business owner — he had a little community store in Duck Bay — so that caught my attention, and started me thinking about going in that direction.”
The College’s ACCESS Business Administration program was designed specifically for those facing educational barriers, whether social, economic or even geographical. Thompson says the program provided him with the fundamental skills to succeed in a business environment, noting he learned how to communicate more effectively, how to work well as part of a team, and how to overcome such obstacles as the entrenched racism still prevalent at the time.
“As in all places, racism was there and taking place,” he says. “The bigger the community, the more you dealt with it. But what it did do was provide me with more skills, and it made me stronger in dealing with it head on.”
Thompson’s first job after graduating was with the Royal Bank, where in 1990 he was one of only a handful of employees who identified as Aboriginal.
“The difference was that I was very visible, because of my skin colour and long hair. A lot of people were surprised to see me working in a banking atmosphere, especially Aboriginal people,” he recalls.
As it turns out, the Royal Bank proved an excellent place to work, and though Thompson faced a steep learning curve at first, he rose to the challenge. He got his start in personal banking, then shifted to Management training, and after only seven years was made manager of a small branch on Peguis First Nation.
Thompson’s last assignments were in human resources, an area that caught his interest and helped him realize he’d found his niche. But when the department’s Winnipeg office was closed, he opted to look for similar work elsewhere.
He was hired by Manitoba Hydro to conduct a systemic review of Aboriginal employment — a contract position that eventually led to the job he now holds. He started off as Hydro’s Aboriginal Employment Advisor, raising the company’s profiles and strengthening its ties to Aboriginal communities throughout the province.
“If you’re looking at where most of the power is generated, and where the Aboriginal communities are in the North, of course it makes sense for us to have a strategy and to be building partnerships with those communities,” he says.
Though he still faces barriers, Thompson says he’s heartened by the strides made by Aboriginal people in all walks of life, and cites both Manitoba Hydro’s and Red River College’s commitment to the Aboriginal community as proof of the positive changes he sees.
As for himself, Thompson says his responsibilities don’t end with his employment. He’s also renewed his commitment to making Aboriginal communities aware of the increased possibilities now open to them.
“I’m not perfect, but I try to practice what I preach … and this year, I’m very proud of myself for trying to learn more about who I am as an Aboriginal person — my traditions, my history and what it means to be Anishanabe,” says Thompson, who currently serves on RRC’s Alumni Board.
“I like to share what I have learned with my family and friends and co-workers. The more awareness, the more of a push we have on the importance of education, the better it is for everyone — including Aboriginal communities. The only way we’ll succeed is through education.”
Click here for more information about the ACCESS Business Administration Integrated program at Red River College.
Click here for more information about Manitoba Hydro.