From the Hairdressing Chair to a Seat in Governance: Donna Kisoun Brings a Wealth of Experience to the Table
“Give us the same opportunities. We’ll shine. Just give us that opportunity,” Donna Kisoun urges, advocating for her people. She’s originally from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, her father was Inuvialuit and her mother was Vuntut Gwitchin. A mother of three children, and grandmother of four, she earned a Red Seal in hairdressing, then worked in community development, self government and policy.
One of the transferable skills she learned hairdressing was listening to people. In a government office job that came later, she started as a receptionist and she would type up business plans for local tourism businesses. As she would type them up, she would see issues with them and bring her concerns to the person who made the plan to make suggestions to do things differently. People started to realize her input was valuable and she received training to become an economic development officer trainee.
She went to a university in Lethbridge, Alberta that specialized in business and self government for Indigenous people. Kisoun learned with Indigenous people from across Canada and they shared their hopes and dreams for their communities. With everything she learned, she helped communities in the Beaufort Delta region of the Northwest Territories.
After leaving the government of the Northwest Territories, Kisoun worked with NGOs and in training programs for her people. For a year, she worked with the NWT Training Centre, helping people upgrade to 9th or 10th grade education, while also providing life skills, coaching, traditional teachings and culture. Without ongoing funding, the program was shut down.
Later, Kisoun was elected as chairperson for her Community Corporation during the beginning of the big economic development boom of oil and gas exploration within the region. She had to protect their land and resources while staying on top of available opportunities. Her strong board of directors and her mother, a strong leader in her time, helped her through those experiences.
Her advice for Indigenous students that have to leave their community to pursue education or professional opportunities is to save money for the expenses that come with such a big transition. She suggests being prepared for changes, loneliness and to make good friends to lean on far from home. Doing your research about the program or career opportunity is also something she recommends to make the best use of education funding. “You get maybe one chance, so make sure it's something you really want to do,” she advises.
When she left Inuvik for school, it was hard because she was a single mother and her daughter was in first grade. She had to find the discipline to show up for class and get assignments done. Classes had to be scheduled around her daughter’s school schedule and the bus schedule so she could be home for her, since she couldn’t afford a sitter. Most of all, she wasn’t prepared for the stress, loneliness and mental health challenges that could come from it.
To manage her mental wellness, Kisoun sees a therapist. In therapy, she processes past and intergenerational trauma. She struggles with depression and did a 28 day program to be aware of alcoholism at Poundmaker's Lodge so she could raise her daughter in a healthy environment. In treatment, she learned some tools to manage mental health issues. Then, at the epitome of her career, she had a serious breakdown.
Without support from work, she had to take some time away. While she was on leave, her family suffered a great loss. With the help of therapy through the residential school compensation program, she was able to get some more help. She suggests doing homework about any treatment program to make sure it’s a good fit before undertaking it.
When she needs inspiration, she looks to her grandchildren and how the things she does are going to make life better for them. “ I don’t want them to ever feel less than,” she explains. She was once driven by making things better for her children, but she has a new generation to keep in mind now.
Donna Kisoun learned at school in the South and led in the North, going from the hairdressing chair to a seat in governance. She had to overcome her own struggles with trauma and mental health and take care of herself so she could care for others. All she wants is what her people deserve: to be given the same opportunities as any other Canadians so they can shine.
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.