DeAnne Lightning shares her journey to Athabasca University (AU) through the partnership between the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association (AFOA) of Alberta and the Faculty of Business at AU.
“This is a quote I’m borrowing from my dad, ‘You have to be able to learn how to walk your path of life with a moccasin on one foot and a Nike on the other.’ You have to be able to be mainstream and protect your culture. That’s what I’m trying to be. I’m trying to be someone who could leave the community but prefers to stay and be a part of moving the Nation forward. I am proud of where I come from.”
DeAnne Lightning, a First Nations learner from Ermineskin Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., is completing a Bachelor of Commerce through AU’s collaborative partnership with AFOA Alberta.
Anything is possible
Although she never dreamed of going to university as a youth, the program has helped her to see that anything is possible.
“The instructors and deans, all the people involved, are smart, educated people, but they aren’t intimidating,” she says. “It’s encouraging and non-judgmental. I love that.”
“We all have high-stress jobs–mostly in finance. When you walk into these meetings, it’s like you have a new identity. It’s like being young again. It’s empowering.”– DeAnne Lightning
Lightning has been the manager of the Ermineskin Food Bank for nine years. She has been working with the band for over 10 years and has also led the Ermineskin National Child Benefit program—an initiative with a large operational budget. She has also worked with youth work programs, helped with daycare fees, driver’s licence training, and several other community projects.
“I like to help people,” she says. “I don’t have dreams about being the chief or a councillor. You don’t have to be in council to be a leader. I have a lot of plans for ways we can help people.”
Learning about other cultures is an aspect of education that Lightning cherishes. Three of her instructors have rich cultural backgrounds and are always willing to share their experiences. She says that although the instructors were used to online learning and not being face-to-face with their students, in-class sessions were wonderful.
“…to laugh, joke, and learn… we learned about their culture, and they learned about our culture. It was a really good experience,” she says.
“We all have high-stress jobs—mostly in finance. When you walk into these meetings, it’s like you have a new identity. It’s like being young again. It’s empowering.”
It's never too late
Like Lightning, many of her classmates have children and grandchildren, and understand the struggles that Indigenous Peoples in education can face.
“When you go into a classroom and you’re surrounded by people who know what you’ve struggled with, who know all the barriers and negativity we’ve had to overcome to get here… it’s like nothing I’ve ever imagined,” she says.
Lightning has completed four courses with AU and at least 10 with AFOA Alberta, including obtaining her certificate in Aboriginal financial management. She is using what she has learned through AU and AFOA Alberta to help people in her role as a manager.
“I want people on the reserve to know they’re not stuck. I want to be a role model. I didn’t become a parent until I was 30. I didn’t have dreams of getting my degree or anything like that. Now, I’m 51 years old, but it’s never too late,” she says. “Opening your eyes, broadening your horizons can give you motivation to keep moving forward.”
Born and raised on the reserve, Lightning has always been compelled to help her community.
“My culture has taught me strength, compassion, faith, and resilience,” she says. “I see what Indigenous Peoples have gone through, what they’ve overcome, and so I thank my culture for that.”
She has started a community gardening project with her son and father. She says she’s never been a gardener in her life, but has built a team of around 14 people, mostly youth, who tend the garden.
“We’re all learning together,” Lightning says. “When we succeed, whatever we get out of the garden comes to the food bank, and we give it out to our clients.”
This experience has also been fulfilling for the youth.
“Youth learn how to grow, be responsible, and it gives them pride,” she says. “I consider that garden a sacred place. I’ve had kids work there that might not have had a very happy home life, but this is a place they can feel safe and take pride in their work, so I’m proud of that gardening project.”
A complicated but endearing family history has influenced everything she accomplishes. Lightning’s grandfather was a medicine man and her grandmother, parents, and siblings have all fostered youth.
“It was all about helping people,” she says.
Her mother, an Acadian from Halifax, spent her youth in the convent, while her father spent his in a residential school.
“I had a hard time figuring out what belief system to follow,” she says. “…but the work ethic and wanting to help people—I get that from my culture and my family.”
“My culture has taught me strength, compassion, faith, and resilience. I see what Indigenous Peoples have gone through, what they’ve overcome, and so I thank my culture for that.”– DeAnne Lightning
A bright future ahead
Lightning’s education with AFOA Alberta and the Faculty of Business has been life changing.
“It’s given me inspiration and a higher self-esteem,” she says. “I’m proud to be one of the first people who’s been able to take this program. I see a brighter future for myself, and I see a brighter future for my son. It’s really given me a new identity and a new purpose.”
Watch for Lightning and her son, Talon Lightning, in AU’s award winning commercial below!