Indigenous students find leadership opportunities with local school board

Indigenous youth in northeastern Ontario are finding strength in their own voices through leadership opportunities in their local school board.

'Before I started getting involved, my self-esteem wasn't in the best state,' says Indigenous student trustee

Jamal Gagnon says the leadership opportunities he's had with the school board have helped his confidence and self-esteem. (Jamal Gagnon Facebook)

Indigenous youth in northeastern Ontario are finding strength in their own voices through leadership opportunities in their local school board.

Jamal Gagnon is the Indigenous student trustee for District School Board North East (DBS1) in northeastern Ontario from Hearst to Temagami and also co-chairs the board's student senate. 

The student senate is made up of two students from each of the district's 10 high schools that meet monthly to provide a perspective on student issues and communicate decisions made by the board to their school's student body.

Gagnon, a member of Taykwa Tagamou First Nation, 70 kilometres northeast of Timmins, Ont, said he didn't always have the confidence to stand up and speak in public. 

"I noticed before I started getting involved, my self-esteem wasn't in the best state," said Gagnon. 

He added that he just kept to himself in his own bubble.

Last year, Gagnon ran for Indigenous student trustee in the school board after joining the student senate when a fellow student reached out to him to take someone's position who had resigned.

He said since becoming involved with the student leadership he's been helping to make a difference for Indigenous students by bringing their concerns to the school board.

Gagnon also said he noticed the student leadership opportunities weren't being promoted and didn't think students were aware of what the school board could offer them. 

He brought his concerns to Lisa Innes, Indigenous system lead for the school board, and together they started an online leadership forum for Indigenous students in DBSI over Zoom.

"Our goals are to engage students who identify as Indigenous in a virtual, inclusive, collaborative environment once per month," he said. 

A screenshot taken by Jamal Gagnon during the first virtual Indigenous student leadership forum. (Submitted by Jamal Gagnon)

For the last three years, Indigenous leadership gatherings have been held three to four times a year, so now the students will be connecting more often with each other. 

The first virtual meeting just took place on Nov. 18. 

"We plan and create opportunities to demonstrate leadership under COVID protocols and to network and establish friendships."

The forum invites Indigenous students to engage in positions like the student senate but also creates a space for them to feel comfortable and connect with each other if they aren't interested in joining school level leadership.  

Mackenzie Innes, 16, thought the online leadership forum looked like a chance to get involved with other Indigenous students.

"I like being involved in a lot of Indigenous activities, but there's not really much going on, especially since COVID," said Innes. 

Innes is from Moose Cree First Nation, 321 kilometres north of Timmins. She just started at Timmins High and Vocational School last year.

Mackenzie Innes joined the student leadership forum because she likes to be involved with other Indigenous students but since the pandemic there hasn't been as many activities going on. (Submitted by Mackenzie Innes)

During the meeting, she was appointed to be student senator for Timmins High. 

Even just after one meeting she said it's brought out a lot of confidence in her that she didn't know she had.

"I would like a lot more Indigenous voices to be heard and a lot more Indigenous students to come out and realize all the potential they have at school and in the community," she said.

One of her goals is to advocate for her school to create programs that help Indigenous students deal with anxiety and feel more comfortable at school.

'They have amazing ideas' 

Lisa Innes has been working with the school board in Timmins for the last decade and said she understands how important building a sense of belonging is for these students.

As a member of Attawapiskat First Nation, when she attended high school in Timmins she boarded with a French-speaking family. Looking back, she said she never felt a real sense of belonging.

"I think our kids are so gifted," said Innes.

"We have to give them the self-confidence and the voice and the platform, the space, the time to be active listeners because they have amazing ideas."

For Gagnon, he said the opportunities have been life changing and he now has big goals for his future. 

He plans to attend the University of Ottawa for a bachelor's degree in human rights and conflict studies and also wants to attend law school to study family and criminal law. 

"I want to model change within many communities, and my mission is to make Indigenous youth aware that despite the circulation of unfortunate issues you may face, anything is possible," said Gagnon. 


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.