Occupational program empowers Indigenous women

Graduates of Courage to Soar, a program partnered with AC Online, took part in a ceremony at the National Arts Centre on March 28
Photo: Stephanie Taylor
Christine Spence (middle) receiving her certificate of achievement for finishing Courage to Soar during the ceremony held at the National Arts Centre on March 28 . Alongside her are (from left to right) Farbod Karimi, Anita Tenasco, Sabrina Gideon and Irene Compton.

For Irene Compton, the co-founder of Minwaashin Lodge, it felt as if the Courage to Soar program was meant to happen.

Minwaashin Lodge, a support centre for Indigenous women located on St. Laurent Boulevard, describes Courage to Soar as a program dedicated to helping Indigenous women who have survived domestic abuse or are at risk of being abused empower their economic lives.

About 15 years ago, Compton was given the opportunity to start a program to empower women and teach them occupational skills. After Compton got accepted to start the program, that’s when the real work began.

“I remember I was walking down Bank Street and it was snowing very lightly. I was asking Creator, ‘Where do I start Creator?’” said Compton. “It just so happened I walked right by an employment centre.”

Compton went into the employment centre and told the staff there what she was doing. Within the day, Compton had the employment centre and Willis College, which was right across the street from the employment centre, on board to help start Compton’s program.

Courage to Soar’s first year saw only two graduates. This year there were 11, which was the largest graduation group the program has seen. This was also the first year Courage to Soar partnered with AC Online.

A graduation ceremony was held to honour the 11 graduates at the National Arts Centre on March 28.

“Throughout this program we have witnessed the transformative power of education and empowerment of Indigenous women to reach their fullest potential,” said Sabrina Gideon, the Courage to Soar coordinator, in her opening speech. “From overcoming barriers to embracing new opportunities, each graduate has demonstrated unwavering commitment to their personal and academic growth.”

Each graduate entered the program a different person compared to who they are today.

Lilia Taiberei (middle) receiving her courage to soar diploma during the graduation ceremony held at the National Arts Centre on March 28. She is with Anita Tenasco (left) and Sabrina Gideon (right).
Lilia Taiberei (middle) receiving her Courage to Soar certificate during the graduation ceremony held at the National Arts Centre on March 28. She is with Anita Tenasco (left) and Sabrina Gideon (right). Photo credit: Stephanie Taylor

“[Minwaashin Lodge] helped me escape violence, get my own apartment, go to Algonquin College and now get a job in the government,” said Christine Spence, a recent graduate of the program. “[Courage to Soar] saved my life.”

Ten of the 11 graduates have upcoming placements at Indigenous Services Canada. The remaining graduate opted to find a placement outside of the government.

Graduates Lilia Taibarei and Heather Hennessy-Goneau had trouble putting into words how happy they were to have had the opportunity to take Courage to Soar. Both of their faces were glowing with joy.

“We are so happy and just thankful for the help we have received,” said Taibarei.

Both Taibarei and Hennessy-Goneau entered the program seeking a career change.

“I was [working] in childcare since 2010 and have been in childcare ever since,” said Hennessy-Goneau. “[This program] gives us the opportunity to change and focus on something new.”

The Courage to Soar graduates getting ready to toss their caps at the end of their ceremony, which was held at the National Arts Centre on March 28.
The Courage to Soar graduates getting ready to toss their caps at the end of their ceremony, which was held at the National Arts Centre on March 28.

While helping the women find jobs is a goal for Courage to Soar, Gideon hopes the women graduating the program leave with a sense of sisterhood. As the women finish the program and go start their new jobs, this hope becomes a reality.

“I’ve learned respect, determination, courage, sisterhood and to keep fighting towards [my] goals,” said Spence.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 62 to 65 call for better education for reconciliation in various ways, such as more funding to help teachers in post-secondary schools integrate Indigenous teachings into their classes.

These calls to action are part of the reason AC Online was so eager to partner with the Minwaashin Lodge to build Courage to Soar.

“Algonquin College should not wait for a report from the government to take action on such an important topic,” said Farbod Karimi, the acting dean of AC Online.

Karimi said he has learned more about Indigenous Peoples from Anita Tenasco in the past year than he has in the past three decades.

“Our best partner so far has been Algonquin College and they’re doing it because they know they are changing Indigenous women’s lives,” said Compton. “All our women that come to Minwaashin Lodge, they live in poverty, and I mean real poverty. Giving them this opportunity to really use their gifts and skills and show who they truly are, that’s a really big opportunity.”

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