An Interview with Jewell Gillies, Ab ...
1) What university or college did you go to and what did you study?
I attended the University of the Fraser Valley, studying Criminology (2005) because at that time I was on track to be hired by the Vancouver Police Department and Criminology was my sole interest in education.
2) You work in Aboriginal Services, Seconded to Student, Graduate, & Co-op Employment Services at?Okanagan College. What was your journey like toward working in the community of higher learning and doing what you do now?
When I graduated high school, my dream was not to work in the post-secondary field. In fact, I had already pre-enlisted in the United States Army, as a combat medic, and had been taking basic training on weekends and holidays. Shortly after I graduated from high school, I moved to the United States, where I completed my basic training and my method of service training. While I completed 1 year with the US Army, I then returned home to go to school and gain life experience to be a successful applicant to the Vancouver Police Department.
Since I was 8 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a role model for my Indigenous community. Being a police officer seemed to be the most appropriate way for me to achieve that. At the age of 3 years old, my mother died, having suffered the traumas of residential school, which scarred her mentality. And, before they were adults, my 2 older brothers became addicts and lived homeless and deviant lives for over 30 years now. To me, becoming?a police offer was the best way to offset the injustice my brothers perpetrated on the world around them. It was also a way for me to be the officer that saved one young person from going down the same wrong path.
While training as a police officer, I also managed several different clothing retail stores and paid my own way through university – finding my stride in leadership positions. Finally, I was hired by the Vancouver Police Department, in 2005, as an Auxiliary Jail Guard and 7 months later I was hired as a Police Constable. I graduated from the Police Academy at the Justice Institute of BC in 2006. I spent close to 6 years with the VPD, working primarily in East Vancouver and in the Downtown Eastside, serving my community – the Indigenous Community.
Over the years, I realized that my ability to intervene and make those fundamental positive impacts on Indigenous youth needed to happen earlier. Instead of responding to calls and seeing Indigenous youth in handcuffs, trying to connect with them when it was most difficult, I could work to connect with them earlier. And, while I am a status First Nations person from the Musgamwagwa Dzawadaeunx of the Kwakwakawakw Nation, people only ever saw my uniform first. I needed to find a different way to make a difference. This realization caused me to resign my position with the VPD, in late 2012, and it was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I cried as I walked out of the police station as a civilian. The profession I had spent an entire life working towards, and dreaming of, the career I had spilt tears (and blood) for…that career was over. I was comforted by my Sergeant reminding me that while my position within the department was done, the impact I had on the community would live on in their memories forever.?
Then, almost by accident, I found a job posting for an Aboriginal Student Advocate here in the Central Okanagan. As I applied for the job, I thought to myself: “How am I ever going to prove I am qualified to do this type of work?”. I had been a Range Officer, a K-9 Dog Quarry, an Undercover Operator, and a less-lethal Shotgun Operator for a major police department. I was calm under pressure and good with people. But, how did all those skills transform into a civilian job in a high school? Thankfully, I was hired into SD 23 (Central Okanagan School District), as an Aboriginal Student Advocate, in late 2012, and I worked for the district for nearly 5 years. I was motivated by the difference I could see my role making for our Indigenous community and this was a magical place where change – fundamental change – happened. This role filled me with purpose, passion, and vision to do even more and that’s when I applied to work at Okanagan College.
I was hired by Okanagan College at the beginning of 2018, and I have been thrilled every day to show up for work. I am inspired and motivated by the students I work with each day. The societal obstacles that they face as Indigenous post-secondary students, and the amazing things they are achieving despite the inequity they experience in society, is transformative.
In January of 2020, I was seconded into this current role for the college. Now, my goal with this work is to privilege the voice of our Indigenous students – to share their stories in a very traditional way of sharing knowledge and information. The goal is that through these stories, we can find new ways to provide equitable access to our Indigenous students and build meaningful, deeper reciprocal relationships with our student body, our Indigenous community partners, and our business community partners.
2) What do you find most meaningful about your job? What is the most challenging?
The ability to connect with students and the Indigenous community in a way that uplifts their voice, that inspires them to reach further than perhaps even they had imagined for themselves – this gives me the most satisfaction in the work I do. I’m also grateful to be able to challenge deeply rooted systems that, by their very nature, create inequity and deficits for the Indigenous community. I recognize that while the work I do is impactful, I cannot change the world…not alone anyhow. To realize that I cannot fix every issue for every student, every community member I work with, but to know that sometimes the discomfort of change, or the discomfort of failure, is also the lifting–off point for many people. Not unlike my own views of my “failure” in my policing career, what it really became is a starting point for this new career path. A career path that has been exhausting, overwhelming, beautiful, and magical – all at the same time.
3) What is the best piece of advice you can give today’s post-secondary students and graduates?
Go where the going makes you uncomfortable. Lean into that feeling and work through it. This is where you will realize the limitations you have in life are only the ones that you allow to exist.
4) You recently launched a Positive Space Committee at Okanagan College. Is this an easy thing to do for other higher learning institutions? Any advice on getting a Positive Space Committee up and running or tips on starting out?
The Positive Space Committee has been a labor of love for me and many colleagues from all areas at our? Institution. I identify as a Two-Spirit Indigenous person, so being able to provide our students, staff, and broader OC community a safe space to own their identity has been a big personal goal of mine.
To create this type of committee, one that challenges patterns of discrimination overtly or through subversive microaggressions towards the LGBTQ2IA+ community, requires support from the highest level of the institution. I am pleased to say that at Okanagan College we have the support of leadership in seeing this committee established and in supporting our over–arching wellness initiatives at the college.
You often hear the slogan “Nothing for us without us” said at rallies, marches, or protests. That sentiment is fundamentally one of the most important factors to consider when creating a Positive Space committee – regardless of the organization’s size structure or clientele. Ensuring you have the voice of the LGBTQ2IA+ community present in the process is vital. Only those who have lived with historical discrimination know what is needed for them to feel safe, included, supported, and welcomed.
5) What (or who) inspires you?
Oh, this is such a big question! I find inspiration in many, many people, and in many events throughout my life – big or small. I have a 6–year–old daughter, who has the same name as me, and she is my biggest inspiration. Indigenous Peoples have a concept of the Seven Generations. In short terms it means I am the culmination of the wisdom, love, and knowledge of the 7 generations of ancestors who have come before me; the knowledge I have, the abilities I have, are because of all of them – not just me. The privilege I have in the positions I hold in society now is not just to benefit myself, but to benefit the 7 Generations that will come after me – the sense of selfless work that is done for the greater good. I look at my daughter, and each day I am inspired to renew my efforts to create a more equitable, safe, and loving society for her – because of her and with her.
6) What words do you try to live by?
If I can, I must. I am not sure where I picked this statement up, but I say it to?myself in various situations – almost daily. I have this ability, this passion, and this position in my role as Mother, Daughter, Activist, Co-op Coordinator, and the ability to make great changes for others. This work, at times, is exhausting; and the details of making events and programing happen are numerous. But if I can, I must.
I have also taught this statement to my daughter. The idea of being more than a bystander. If we see inequity or injustice happening to those around us, and we are in the position to support them in some way, then we must do so. My daughter saved up half of her allowance for 12 months, and last Christmas she bought supplies to make 15 care packages – handing them out to homeless community members in downtown Kelowna. She was beaming afterward, from seeing the look of surprise and joy on those folks’ faces, and she felt proud that she had made a real positive impact on so many people. She ended the day by saying “We are lucky Momma, that we can afford our house and our food, so we must share with others who are not so lucky.” Thinking about it now makes me tear up with how proud I am of her. This year, the allowance she is saving will be donated to the food bank.
We may not always be financially able to do things like this, but if it’s a kind word, a smile, or a voice to stand with those who face injustice; if we can do these things, we must do so.
7) How important is gaining work experience in leading effectively?
Just because we know theory does not mean we can be effective at teaching the subject. The same goes for leadership, just because someone has letters behind their name does not mean they can be effective leaders. I spent many years in various management roles, in leadership roles, and in positions of authority. The biggest thing I learned from all of those experiences is to be humble, as we will never know everything. The experience from those roles taught me to listen first to the team, to ask questions more than I give direction, to be flexible with my goals, and to accommodate other minds in the conversation. These are all things you need to go through in order to understand. I have made many leadership mistakes over the years, but I have never let them be useless mistakes, I have always utilized them as learning opportunities – determined to be better the next time. This is a reflexive lifelong mindset that I believe all great leaders use.
8) What books are you reading right now?
“21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act”, Bob Joseph. (This is a book about helping Canadians make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality).
“The Inconvenient Indian”, Thomas King
“Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone”, J.K Rowling, (A part of the bedtime stories I read to my daughter each night).?
9) With the current shift to online learning, all institutions have had to move online until we are confidant going back on campus is a safe/healthy option for everyone. What do you miss most about the in-person higher learning experience?
I was raised to believe that the best communication happens in person; when you can see the whites of a person’s eyes and feel the intention in their heart as well as hear their words. I miss collaborating with my colleagues on campus, some of the best ideas are hatched in random hallway conversations with staff members who may not even be from the same department.
I miss seeing my students in person, while I still have the opportunity now to virtually meet with them, and check-in, I miss the congratulatory hugs we shared when they would tell me of their recent successes, I also miss the student potluck lunches we hosted in the Aboriginal Student Center; when the room filled with the OC community and we would share a good meal and lots of laughter.
Indigenous Peoples have experienced and continue to experience incredible trauma from assimilation and cultural genocide. The strongest quality we have is in our resiliency, and our resiliency is found in the laughter that burst-forth, in any community gathering, from the depths of our brave and strong hearts. Laughter is healing and it’s the shared laughter with my students and community I think I miss most of all.