Lawrence Ignace

Working Together for the Planet: Lawrence Ignace’s Path to Protect Mother Earth

He thought he was stuck doing what he was doing and he couldn’t go back to school. He found out that wasn’t the case. “I think there's always choices. It's just a matter of maybe planning how to get to where you want to go. Anything you think you want to be is possible. Don't close your mind to those opportunities,” Lawrence Ignace shares. Originally from Treaty Three territory in Northwestern Ontario, his hometown is named for his family, after his great, great, great, great grandfather who helped Sir Sanford Fleming cross the territory. Impressed with his ancestor’s skills, they named the town after he and his family have lived in the area ever since.

These days, Ignace is working on his Ph.D. at the University of Victoria in environmental studies. In choosing his field of studies and in who he is as a person, his mother and grandmother had a big influence on him. They both were very strong women and trappers that lived their lives on the land.

He’s made a home for himself in Whitehorse and he picked his university to stay on the same side of the continent as his new home.

Ignace has a supportive supervisor, something he considers integral to graduate student success and the smaller school environment affords him many opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. The Indigenous student support includes organizations that help students through their courses and their time in post-secondary. Going back to school was an easier decision knowing how much focus there is in academia towards Reconciliation and providing opportunities to Indigenous people who are underrepresented in their fields.

Reconciliation is important to Ignace as someone who had a traumatic upbringing due to intergenerational trauma from residential schools. His family wasn’t supportive of education and he spent a lot of his time trying to find safe places for himself, something he found in sports. Basketball, volleyball, any kind of sport available, playing helped him get through high school. After he graduated, he had to get away from his small town and he moved to Toronto to go to York University. 

His family was not excited for him to be so far away and the culture shock of going from a small town with nothing going on to an urban centre with concerts and parties and all sorts of activities made it hard for him to focus on school. In his third year, he realized what he needed to do to become successful, though his decision to work and study at the same time made things harder for him. Trying to do both is something he ultimately considers to have been a mistake.

To youth considering leaving their home communities to learn somewhere new, Ignace has words of advice. “Don't be scared. We always have choices and I think some are harder than others. But for me, I think it was the right choice. I look back now and I see that Northwestern Ontario is still struggling. There's no answer for how to improve a lot of the conditions that are there. It doesn't take away from the fact that I still love my family, and my connections to my culture and everything are there. But I think it really is a real opportunity to take that risk and go to school with the idea that you're going to be able to bring back so many different ways of thinking about things, and being able to potentially facilitate positive steps within your community,” he reflects.

Illustration by Shaikara David

To maintain his balance during difficult times, like when writing comprehensive exams, Ignace plays basketball, volleyball and tries to get outside at least once a day to see the sunshine. He tries to connect with people and maintain perspective about what’s most important to him. Getting enough sleep, focusing and being present, doing the things he loves to do and surrounding himself with supportive people who share his goals are also key steps for him to stay well.

As a later-in-life student, he hasn’t taken a traditional path to graduate studies. He worked with the federal and provincial governments and with the Assembly of First Nations. One of the things he struggled with was the experience of walking in two worlds as a First Nations person navigating a dominant society. “I think if you don't have a strategy for yourself, you often will get caught in that,” he relays. He grounded himself in his work, the environment and the people who are important to him to work through that experience.

Over the past twenty years, he’s seen the number of Indigenous people working on environmental issues nationally grow from a handful to hundreds. “That is showing us that people are getting more involved, people are interested and inspiring our communities to look at things differently. I'm not saying that communities haven't always had those at the forefront. But I think now it's becoming more present,” he explains. He’s seen communities prioritizing the environment now more than ever and interdisciplinary conversations bringing people together for the greater good.

“We need all these folks working together and looking at trying to achieve the goals and dreams of communities. I think that's how we are and that traditionally, that's probably how we made decisions and how we supported our communities and figured out where we needed to be,” he continues.

In closing, Lawrence Ignace has words of encouragement. “Always keep your mind open. I think we sometimes become a little too focused thinking that there's no options, or those options aren't necessarily for us,” he counsels. It’s something he knows firsthand, because he thought he was stuck doing what he was doing and he couldn’t go back to school. He found out that wasn’t the case and that realization brought him to grad school in Victoria. In learning to take care of the environment, he found an environment that helps him take care of himself so he can influence the choices of the next seven generations in protecting Mother Earth.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Yukon Territory
  • Date
    October 22, 2023
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  • Discussion Guide
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