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Q + A with RRC President Stephanie Forsyth

November 29, 2010

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Here's the full version of the Q+A with Red River College's new President and CEO Stephanie Forsyth that was excerpted in the most recent issue of RED magazine.


1. What led you to a career in post-secondary education?

Prior to my first job in PSE, I was working in the hospitality industry and it was a challenge to get highly qualified people. Selkirk College approached me to develop and initiate programs for the hospitality sector. Over the next several years I worked both within the college sector and in the hospitality industry. I became engaged in assisting the more marginalized to obtain an education and employment and realized the power of education to transform lives. It has been inspiring and deeply gratifying. There was a time I would have never imagined I would be in education; now I’m completely devoted to this work.

 

2. What drew you to Red River College?

It’s perhaps the only college in Canada that could lure me out of B.C. It’s located in a “big small town,” it has an excellent reputation and its values and strategic directions fit with my interests and background, such as: working closely with communities, industry and the province in social and economic development; seeking to enhance access and success of Aboriginal learners and the chronically underemployed; leading in applied research and innovation; aspiring to be a green college; and the list goes on!

Additionally, I was very interested in learning about the lifestyle and culture of prairie Canada. So far, my impression is that Winnipeg is a great place to live that’s greatly misunderstood by the rest of Canada. It’s an accessible, affordable city with a lot to offer! I’m very impressed with the arts and culture, the amenities, and the warm and welcoming spirit of so many people, from shopkeepers to college staff.

 

3. What do you bring to this position that will help RRC achieve its strategic goals?

I have a long and varied background within post-secondary education having worked in five other colleges both urban and rural, primarily in administrative capacities; a breadth of experience.  I bring an entrepreneurial perspective and skills; a passion about the ability of post-secondary education to change lives and communities, and; a community social and economic development focus to this position which I believe fits well with the strategic directions of RRC. I have extensive background in running multi-campus colleges primarily due to my belief in accessible education, my interest in community development and the value I place on rural living.  

 

4. You did a lot of work at NWCC to enhance educational opportunities for aboriginal students. Why do you feel this is so important, and how do you plan to continue that focus at RRC?

Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people hangs as a black cloud over Canadian society. That we are still struggling with the “Indian problem” in 2010 is remarkable. While many have tried to address the issue, statistics show that Aboriginal people continue to struggle with high unemployment and low educational attainment levels:

  • 4 out of 10 aboriginal students in Canada complete post-secondary education compared to 6 out of 10 for non-aboriginal students.
  • Aboriginal communities continue to face high unemployment. In northwest BC  unemployment still ranges from 40 to 93%
  • The Aboriginal population is on a dramatic rise while the mainstream population is in dramatic decline. The Aboriginal population is growing at three times the rate of the non-Aboriginal population. We are quickly becoming a ‘browner’ Canada.
  • Aboriginal children, make up 6% of Canada’s population and yet the success rates for these children in the K-12 system still falls well below non-Aboriginal children
  • 50% of Aboriginal people are under the age of 29 and will represent an ever increasing portion of the national labour force in Canada

There is much talk in PSEs about inclusion and equal opportunity for all, and yet we continue to fall short when serving the Aboriginal population. Why hasn’t anything significantly changed over the past few decades?

As educators, we are in a position to make a difference and I believe we must as Verna Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt have stated: “seize the opportunity and overcome institutional inertia … to avoid the alienation of another generation of First Nations people.”

Much of the problem resides in our approach to Aboriginal education. For Aboriginal families, sending their children to school is a double-edged sword. They want their children to attain knowledge and skills, but they don’t want them to be drawn away from the cultural values and traditions of their Nation.

Our colleges and universities for example, are knowingly or unknowingly all about cultural reproduction and the culture that they reproduce is the dominant western culture.  For Aboriginal families, sending their children to school is a double-edge sword – they want their children to attain knowledge and skills, but they don’t want them to be drawn away from the cultural values and traditions of their Nation. 

As Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan woman and the Executive Director of the First Nations Children & Families Caring Society of Canada states, “Too often there is an assumption that colonization is not a present experience; there is little knowledge of the systemic barriers that continue to block the "way forward" as described in Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal People.”  To address this “…we must unpack the values, ideologies and actions that support colonization, expose them, and work respectfully with Aboriginal peoples …”

Education is a powerful vehicle for the “unpacking” job outlined by Blackstock.  Embracing the role of education in redressing colonization is key to the work we have in front of us; as is accepting that reconciliation should not be deferred to government, but rather that it is a personal and organizational responsibility.

Many educators discuss high attrition, poor retention and lack of success when speaking about Aboriginal students; these discussions put the onus for change and adjustment on the Aboriginal student. Rather than trying to have the student fit into a system that does not work for many, we need to look at what we need to do to change the system.

The starting point is through greater understanding of the Aboriginal worldview and the culture and traditions of our Aboriginal neighbours. Equally important is a review of the values, ideologies and actions that support colonialism, and exposing them.

While at Northwest Community College innumerable changes were made in an effort to enhance aboriginal access and success at the college; changes which sometimes brought powerful and unsettling lessons to the college community. We made efforts to ‘unpack’ the paradigm and sought to reshape our understanding of the education system. Our ideologies and actions that unknowingly supported colonization were exposed and challenged, and gradually new ways of leadership, decision-making and pedagogy came into play. 

Red River College has made some significant strides on the issue of Aboriginal education. There is much more to be done. My approach at RRC will be similar to the work I led at NWCC — increasing awareness of the rich culture and traditions of Aboriginal people, promoting greater understanding of the Aboriginal worldview, seeking to bring to light ideologies and actions that may inadvertently support colonization, and looking at what we can do to change the way we operate to acknowledge and celebrate Aboriginal perspectives.

 

5. You've been an advocate for sustainability among college leaders in Canada. Why is it smart for educational institutions to green their own campuses, and what role can they play in fostering sustainability in the broader community?

There is growing scientific evidence that suggests that climate change and ecosystem deterioration are urgent threats to the environmental, social, and economic health of our communities. Many of the climate disruptions and ecosystem changes in recent decades are the result of human activity intended to meet our growing demands for food, fresh water, fiber, and energy as well as a desire for specific products.

Among other things, colleges have a responsibility to teach essential workplace skills to students. Clearly today, it’s essential to learn to live more sustainably and be aware of the damage taking place to our environment. Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility — both individuals and organizations, and as educators we have a key role to play.

Colleges can serve as a catalyst for educating diverse audiences; lead the way by reducing their carbon footprint and making sustainability a defining feature of their culture; initiate strategic partnerships with industry, government and other stakeholders to advance green high-demand, high-growth industries; research emerging practices and strategies; and update curricula to support “green-collar” jobs.

 

6. What is your vision for where Red River College will go over the next five years?

RRC has an excellent reputation across Canada for its work on innovation and applied research, its ties with industry and business, and its efforts to reach out to immigrant students. We’re going to build on those successes, and I’d also like to see: RRC become one of Canada’s best places to work; increased awareness of our role as a leader in social responsibility; a strengthened role for our regional campuses; greater involvement and engagement of Aboriginal communities; expanded capacity for international students and RRC students studying abroad; and the renewal of aging infrastructure and equipment. Those are just a few of the things I’d like to accomplish!

 

7. RRC currently has a number of major capital projects under development. What excites you about the growth plans for the College?

A number of possibilities intrigue me about the capital projects.

In aerospace, we have developed a critical mass of resources and there is much interest in this area. With a few more dollars and additional space, we could position ourselves to become an innovation site for Canada – a resource for small to medium sized companies, and a major training site for domestic and international students.

The potential for the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute to play a research role in food processing and commercialization has yet to be fully explored.  It will continue to revitalize the downtown core, increase access to programs and services, and provide greatly needed residences. And perhaps we will reposition it to be one of the few hotel and culinary schools in Canada to rival those of Europe.

I'm also really keen to learn more about our new greenhouse project. Recent advances by researchers and growers alike have turned aquaponics (the integration of hydroponics with aquaculture) into a working model of sustainable food production. I'm interested to see if we might utilize this research to expand upon our greenhouse initiative to enhance the production of organic produce and provide fish for use in local kitchens.

 

8. Applied research has been a growing focus for colleges and polytechnics in recent years. How do you hope to extend RRC's research capabilities?

 Our applied research capabilities will be greatly enhanced if we can attain an Applied Research Innovation Leader position within the College. This will be the first order of business.

 

9. What are the big challenges and opportunities facing RRC specifically, and post-secondary institutions in general, in the coming years?

There are a number of challenges, including: 

  • Capital funding
  • Having our role in applied research and innovation acknowledged and supported provincially and federally
  • Clarifying who we are: A college? A polytechnic?
  • Our role in rural communities of southern Manitoba
  • Aboriginal education
  • Immigration
  • Internationalization of the college and International students

 

AND NOW FOR A FEW LESS SERIOUS QUESTIONS…

 1. Movie you've watched a dozen times?

Don’t think I have ever watched a movie more than a few times –  right up there is “Seven Pounds”

2. Favourite place?

There are a variety of beautiful places that I have had the privilege of exploring – it is hard to pick a favourite. Top of mind is Haida Gwaii, and most places along the west coast of BC.  

3. Last book you read?

Anne Michaels, 'Fugitive Pieces' (again!)

4. Personal hero?

I have many! People who lead (or have led) their lives with humility, integrity and respect for others; I have been privileged to know many. My nephew, and others, who have overcome significant adversity and taught me much about what is really important in life – our relationships with each other.

5. Three people you'd like to have dinner with?

June Callwood, Dali Lama, my dad and mom (both passed) – besides missing them, I have so many unanswered questions!

6. Favourite sport?

Kayaking or fishing (in good weather!)

7. Three things we'd always find on your desk?

Eagle feathers, stones from rivers and oceans, sweet grass

8. Mac or PC?

Before joining the College world of PC's, I was a Mac lover. Will the tide ever turn?

9. Any hobbies?

I make Native drums, regalia, and do beadwork; would love to have the time to get back to doing pottery and learn the mandolin.

10. Favourite artist?

This is a challenge to answer – my tastes are diverse. Being part of the visual art community in BC it is impossible to choose. I am particularly fond of Northwest (BC) Coast First Nations art.

Some artists works I have collected include April White, Christian White, Stan Bevan, Dean Heron, Corrine Hunt and Titus Auckland.