Derrick Sinclair had hardly held a wrench before he came to Red River College. Nor had he been to a sweat or a smudge. Now the 23-year-old Peguis-born Sinclair has taken an engine down to its bolts, is hoping to sign his apprenticeship papers shortly, and has a second name – Eagle Speaks.
On top of that, he’s been asked by the College to come back as a tutor to mentor students who might be confused about where they want to go in life. Just like he was.
In his final year of high school, Sinclair was like a lot of grads – unsure of what he wanted to do next. He had an interest in mechanics, fed both by a desire to help extended family members “who were always having to take their vehicles into the shops, instead of working on them by themselves” and the draw of a culture glamourized in films such as The Fast and the Furious.
But there weren’t many opportunities on the reserve to get a firm grounding in mechanics or auto repair. Sinclair also suspected the reserve’s school hadn’t pushed him hard enough to prepare him for college life – either in terms of the academic content or having a rigorous class schedule. He was looking for a bridge to let him explore trades education as well as check out what it means to be a college student.
He found that bridge in the Aboriginal Program for College Enrichment and Transition, formerly the Biindigen (“Welcome”) Program.
“I signed up for the Biindigen course. It worked so we could take the first half of the year at Peguis, then spend the second half at RRC, living in dorms… It was really an introduction-to-college course, and after that, with the teachers’ advice, I registered for Introduction to Trades.”
Sinclair says Biindigen brought him up to speed on a lot of his basic academics while letting him dabble in trades, all while adjusting to a more demanding schedule than he was used to. The traditional teaching elements of the course were also a new, valuable experience for him.
“There were smudges and prayers that I’d never done before… Everyone was really respectful. There were good examples set by the instructors, even in the language that they chose to use.”
In a ceremony involving a prayer with each student, Sinclair and his classmates received their “Indian names” while faculty looked on.
“I’m not entirely sure why my name is Eagle Speaks… I suppose it was given to the woman running the ceremony by the Creator.”
After completing first the Biindigen program and then Intro to Trades, Sinclair took a year off school for personal reasons. He moved in with his girlfriend in Riverton for a year, unsure if he was on the right path for his life. But that year off provided him the focus and the drive he needed to return for more education: first his maintenance certificate, then a Level 1 diploma in car mechanics.
“Once I decided what I wanted to do, I stuck to it,” Sinclair says.
He doesn’t have a preference when it comes to working on cars – suspension, electrical, brakes and other systems are all of interest, so long as he’s learning something new. He’s also found a chance to take his work home with him, facing off against a ’98 Ford Expedition that was handed down to him through his family.
“The engine is misfiring pretty bad right now,” Sinclair laughs. “I think it’s probably working on just five or six cylinders.”
Between tackling a cranky SUV and working at Sid’s Complete Car Centre, where he’s finishing his three-month probation and hopes to start his apprenticeship shortly, Sinclair is kept pretty busy. And that’s before Red River College instructors approached him to come back next year with a fellow graduate and provide some peer counselling to aboriginal students going through the program he’d just completed.
“They’re trying to stem the dropout rate of aboriginal students in trades,” Sinclair says. “It’s a big change, moving to college from school on a reserve. A lot of people struggle with the lack of language, not knowing the technical terms for things. For some, it’s their first time using a wrench.
“They need to be encouraged to attend, to not miss classes and fall behind because as soon as you do, the next day at school they’re teaching new things and you’ll be lost.”
Sinclair is being asked back to set an example based on his perseverance. He’s happy to do it, since he’s had examples striving for goals in his own life.
“My father, he left school at Grade 9 to make money as a custodian,” Sinclair says. “Now he’s the head custodian at the school at Peguis. And my mom, she went to university for education but put off finishing it and teaching to raise us kids.
“She just went back and finished her education degree. Now she’s teaching early years at Peguis.”
Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (Creative Communications, 2013)