Making Change and Space at the Table: Ashley Ens’ Journey in Inclusion
“I wanted to be a change maker,” says Ashley Ens. She is from Inuvik, Northwest Territories but spent 15 years living and working for the public service in Yellowknife. These days she lives in Lethbridge, Alberta with her partner and her three children. Ens is inspired by trying to set a good example for her children.
She remembers how she brought her kids with her to Lethbridge do her undergraduate degree and was terrified. “I think that it's a big barrier for Northerners to pursue an education, because we have to leave,” she offers. While Edmonton was closer, she chose Lethbridge because it is smaller. “It was scary being alone, I didn't know anyone,” she recalls. Getting into the mindset needed for school work was tough so she got help from the Indigenous services on campus to build herself a support system. That support is what she credits her academic success to.
She did her undergraduate degree in management, majoring in human resources and minoring in population health. She worked for the public service in Yellowknife as the manager of diversity and inclusion. For Ens, it was a dream job, developing programs, doing evaluations and training. Recently, she led mandatory training on the history of colonization and legacy of residential schools.
Feeling like she wanted to do something more, she went back to school for a Master’s degree in management. Ens found the coursework dry and boring, but she decided to do her thesis on a topic related to her work in diversity and inclusion. She decided on Indigenization within the academy and what it looks like to move from inclusion to decolonization.
The work that she does was inspired, in part, by her family history. Her father went to residential school at the age of five and spent seven years there. When her own son was five, she realized her dad left home at his age and she was overwhelmed with grief. “It was the first time that things kind of made sense to me,” she recalls. After growing up with intergenerational trauma and dysfunction, Ens began to see the bigger picture about the harm that was done and what led her family there. She was inspired to be an advocate for more Indigenous recruitment and programming in her HR work and it continued on from there.
Where it led her was working with EntrepreNorth, where she is an investment catalyst manager. She gets to work with communities, something she’s been longing for as she’s been homesick in Lethbridge. “I get to work with Indigenous women and men that are starting their businesses, and I get to support them in a way that actually is going to allow them to scale and be successful in their ventures. It's something that I am really passionate about,” Ens explains.
The organization had been on her radar because of their successful initiatives and she was excited to have the opportunity to work there. “I feel that they are so forward thinking and it's just really in alignment with the kind of work that I want to do in terms of making change. It was a good fit,” she smiles.
In her current work, she’s doing research around the opportunity of creating a Northern Impact Fund. She loves research, reading, coming up with new ideas and getting to work with entrepreneurs. She travels and does a lot of meetings. Wherever she goes, she’s able to bring her baby with her on her work trips. That flexibility has been a big help given her young daughter was a surprise at a time she’s been very career driven and raising teenagers.
Adjusting to parenting a young child has made her slow down, though she still defended her thesis with her three-month-old. She did all her research and work when she was pregnant so she could have a bit of a break. Entrepenorth reached out to her knowing she had a new baby and was feeling restless. With the help of her partner and older kids, she took the leap, nursing her daughter between zoom meetings and making working motherhood work for her family. Separating her work and personal life has been a bit of a challenge because it all feels so connected. “The work that we do is very personal and it's part of us,” she explains.
Life wasn’t always this smooth, she dropped out in grade nine and was following a path to nowhere. She never dreamed she would get her master’s degree as the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Going to school, she was insecure about not being good enough and so she hopes Indigenous youth would have confidence in themselves and find their self worth. That process takes a lot of healing, vulnerability and openness.
She’s proud that she has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Alberta. Where that is going to lead, she’s not sure, but she has hope for the future. “I don't know if I want to go into academia. I love the idea of being able to be in a position where I can influence change and influence minds and be part of those larger discussions that can shift things,” she marvels. In the meantime, she’s taking it day by day, trying to figure out the logistics of commuting to Edmonton.
“I think the biggest thing right now is that I do want to create change for Indigenous youth and Indigenous people in the North,” she concludes, dreaming of a brighter tomorrow. She wanted to be a change maker, and in the public service and now Entreprenorth, that’s exactly what Ashley Ens did.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.