‘It feels like home’: Meet SAIT’s Director of Indigenous Engagement

A headshot of Jennifer Russell in front of a buffalo mural in Natoysopoyiis.

Jennifer Russell, Ksikk inni na ki, reflects on International Women’s Day, safety for Indigenous women and her first year in a new role. Photo courtesy of Ramsey Kunkel.

It seems perfectly serendipitous — maybe even kismet — that on her one-year anniversary as SAIT’s Director of Indigenous Engagement, Jennifer Russell presented live to the SAIT community and beyond about the historical and present-day power of Indigenous women in Canada.

As keynote speaker for SAIT’s International Women’s Day Conference on Wednesday, March 6, Russell — who has Cree and Blackfoot relations and is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta — delved into the vital role Indigenous women played in the success of Canada’s first economy, the fur trade, and shone a light on the women continuing to drive change in the country today.

Supporting Indigenous women is a pillar of both Russell’s personal values and her career spanning industries and decades. The significance of being able to speak to it as part of SAIT’s International Women’s Day celebrations was not lost on her.

“As an Indigenous woman, I feel honoured standing shoulder to shoulder with my non-Indigenous sisters, with love at the core of the work we all do,” says Russell, whose Blackfoot name is Ksikk inni na ki, or “White Buffalo Woman.”

Love, she asserts, certainly has its place in the corporate world. It’s a strength, says Russell, an offering women are uniquely positioned to bring to the table, and she plans to include it in the terms of reference for the committee developing SAIT’s Truth and Reconciliation Strategic Plan.

“Love is how we bring people along towards reconciliation.”

Russell feels honoured to be part of an organization with strong female representation at the leadership level.

“Five of SAIT’s seven deans are women, and we have four female vice presidents,” she says. “Beyond that, I see a lot of championing at SAIT.”

She specifically notes being inspired by the work of Academic Services Dean Dr. Lisa Weatherby, who conducted doctoral research in the field of gender inclusion in male-dominated classrooms, and School of Construction Dean Reva Bond, who advocates for female participation in the trades and is involved with a number of gender equity initiatives.

The list of women making a difference at SAIT goes on and on — in fact, 11 instructors and employees were recognized at this year’s International Women’s Day award presentation. For Russell, it’s an honour to be part of a network of women who lift each other up and support one another.

“There’s a momentum right now around women rising to the top and women in leadership,” she says. “This is the most senior role I’ve been in, and it feels like a movement — like I’m part of something bigger than myself.”

A career fighting for what’s right

When Russell started the position of Director of Indigenous Engagement a year ago, it marked a return to SAIT after more than a decade away.

Her journey with what was then called Chinook Lodge, SAIT’s Indigenous resource centre, started in 2010 when she served as an Indigenous student recruiter. She then became SAIT’s first Indigenous advisor for Indigenous students, acting as an advocate and helping them successfully navigate their post-secondary experience.

Russell advised Indigenous students from all walks of life. Having experienced the challenges of being a mom to a young child while going through post-secondary herself (she’s both a Mount Royal University and University of Calgary grad), she knew firsthand the difference a helping hand could make.

“Trying to finish a degree, earn an income and take care of a kid was the hardest time,” says Russell. “The services and resources I shared with students during my time at Chinook Lodge were top of mind because I’d lived what the students were living.”

Jennifer Russell and a number of SAIT employees stand in front of Macdonald Hall inside the Irene Lewis Atrium for a group photo.

Jennifer Russell (third from left) poses with SAIT colleagues in 2011.

In 2012, following the passing of previous Chinook Lodge Coordinator Lori Villebrun, Russell stepped into the role. Ultimately, her grief over the loss of her colleague was too much.

“It was really hard to sit in her chair,” she says.

Ready for a new opportunity, Russell started a decade-long chapter at an oil and gas company as a consultant and liaison with Indigenous communities.

“I wanted to get my foot in the door and be an agent of change in the industry,” says Russell.

She found being an Indigenous woman in the corporate world could at times feel isolating and instill unexpected pressure.

“Back then, and even today, when an Indigenous person joins a team they are often considered the expert on all Indigenous matters, but I don’t speak on behalf of all communities or all Indigenous people,” says Russell.

Seeking connection with other Indigenous women as a way through these challenges, Russell soon joined the company’s Indigenous employee resource group as well as the Professional Aboriginal Women in Industry network.

“These groups served as safe spaces for me and other Indigenous women to vent, support each other and celebrate our culture,” she says.

In 2018, Russell began managing the company’s Indigenous Peoples Policy. Her responsibilities included leading the organization’s response to Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 92, which calls on Canada’s corporate sector to weave a reconciliation framework into policies and operations.

Her work involved looking at the psychological well-being of female Indigenous employees at oil and gas work camps. Survey findings revealed a dire need for safety resources and support for Indigenous women at remote sites.

“It’s important companies working in rural Canada make their projects safe for Indigenous women,” she says.

In response to the company’s findings, Russell brokered a partnership between the company and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the organization involved in the creation of Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and its Calls for Justice. The partnership was an important first step.

It also sparked what would become a lifelong commitment for Russell — advocating for the safety of Indigenous women.

“I know all too well how vulnerable we are,” says Russell. “The lasting consequences of residential schools in Canada, the underfunding of schools on reserves and other normalized systemic barriers continue to marginalize Indigenous groups.”

In 2021 Russell transitioned to the role of Indigenous Connectivity Lead at TELUS, building relationships with a multitude of stakeholders and strategically advancing TELUS’ reconciliation strategy and commitment. In this new position and industry, she ensured her fight for Indigenous women and the MMIWG cause could continue.

Today she sits on the Safety of Indigenous Women in Urban Settings task force, a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies and stakeholders in Calgary working together to support Indigenous women and girls who are victims of family and domestic violence.

“For as long as I have a voice, and as a mother of two daughters, two sons and as a grandmother of two granddaughters, the fire that burns in my belly is the safety of my children and my community.”

Five generations: Jennifer Russell sits with her first granddaughter, daughter, mother and grandmother.

Five generations: Jennifer Russell sits with her first granddaughter, daughter, mother and grandmother.

A beautiful homecoming

When Russell learned about a new posting at SAIT for Director of Indigenous Engagement in 2023, she reconnected with former colleagues to learn more. She wanted to be sure the position was more than an empty gesture or corporate tokenism — that it was created with Indigenous guidance and with the intention of driving real change.

She would learn the catalyst for the creation of the role was former Chinook Lodge Manager Larry Gauthier, who had championed for an Indigenous voice at the leadership table. The role was then “born” in the Lodge’s intimate ceremony room — in the presence of Elders and SAIT leaders — and would be responsible for leading SAIT initiatives to ensure the success of Indigenous students, employees and communities. For Russell, the pieces fell into place.

“I have always had such an affinity for SAIT and such a love for the space,” says Russell. “It feels like home for me.”

Seven interviews and an offer later, it was her home again.  

“I’m cognizant not to say dream job because there’s a lot of work to do and it’s hard work,” she says, “but I’m really grateful that it’s me.”

Highlights from Russell’s first year include SAIT hosting its first Indigenous graduation celebrations, as well as introducing the 4 Seasons of Reconciliation course for employees and students in partnership with First Nations University of Canada. Those who complete the training will gain foundational knowledge on Truth and Reconciliation and earn a certificate.

Heather Magotiaux, Vice President, External Relations, and Jennifer Russell participate in a Blanket Ceremony with a graduand at SAIT’s Spring 2023 Indigenous graduation celebration.

Heather Magotiaux, Vice President, External Relations, and Jennifer Russell participate in a Blanket Ceremony with a graduand at SAIT’s Spring 2023 Indigenous graduation celebration.

Another notable success under Russell’s watch was the renaming of SAIT’s Chinook Lodge to reflect the Treaty 7 Nation people it serves (Chinook isn’t a word in any Treaty 7 language). The idea was driven by the resource centre’s manager, Steve Kootenay-Jobin, Na’toya Piik’ski (Holy Bird), and during a traditional Blackfoot Pipe Ceremony in July 2023, Elder Miiksika'am (Clarence Wolf Leg) of Siksika Nation presented the centre with a new name: Natoysopoyiis, which translates to Holy Wind Lodge. He also painted the faces of Russell and Kootenay-Jobin as keepers of the Lodge.

“Being a lodge keeper is a profound honour and responsibility. Natoysopoyiis is a sacred place that has been available to thousands of people over 23 years,” says Russell. “My home away from home was made real for me when Miiksika'am painted my face and gave the Lodge its new name.”

Treaty 7 Elders gather at Natoysopoyiis for the renaming Pipe Ceremony.

Treaty 7 Elders gather at Natoysopoyiis for the renaming Pipe Ceremony.

Amidst these accomplishments, Russell’s biggest point of pride is continuing to prioritize spending time with students in Natoysopoyiis.

“The most important thing to me here at SAIT is for Indigenous students to be successful and go live their best lives,” she says.

Removing barriers for Indigenous students and earning their trust in the education system hits home for Russell, whose own family experienced the traumas of Canada’s residential school system.

“My father was in residential school from the age of five to 16. The legacy of residential school really impacted trust in the education system,” she says.

“I’m the second person in my family to graduate from university — my mom was the first. She cleared a path for me to be able to get a post-secondary education without fear of the traumas that happened in residential school.”

A promising future

Looking ahead, Russell already has big plans in the works to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Natoysopoyiis in 2026.

She’ll also continue to help SAIT move the needle on Truth and Reconciliation. Educating faculty, staff and students is a good place to start.

“One goal of the Calls to Action and the MMIWG Calls for Justice is to help people understand that our untold history has had a major impact on Indigenous peoples’ socioeconomic status and ability to participate in society — and the blame is not on Indigenous people,” says Russell.

As we continue to build common understanding, Russell is hopeful about what’s to come.

"A lot of work has been done over the last 50 to 100 years advancing Indigenous rights,” she says.

“While there’s still a long way to go, I think we are further along towards advancing equity. There's a lot of energy and momentum around answering the Calls to Action across the country."

Access Indigenous supports at Natoysopoyiis

Natoysopoyiis is a space for Canadian Indigenous learners at SAIT to connect with their peers, meet with Elders for cultural and spiritual advising, participate in ceremonial smudgings, and receive onsite advising and counselling.

This space isn't just open to Canadian Indigenous learners — all members of the SAIT community are encouraged to come by to learn about First Nations, Métis and Inuit histories and cultures.

a view of the moutains and stream in between

Oki, Âba wathtech, Danit'ada, Tawnshi, Hello.

SAIT is located on the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) and the people of Treaty 7 which includes the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Îyârhe Nakoda of Bearspaw, Chiniki and Goodstoney.

We are situated in an area the Blackfoot tribes traditionally called Moh’kinsstis, where the Bow River meets the Elbow River. We now call it the city of Calgary, which is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.