Indigenizing leadership pathways: A journey through the impactful Ch’nook Scholars program

Haskayne 2023-24 Ch’nook Scholars Antonio Fortugno, Emily Parker, Mick Ell
Haskayne 2023-24 Ch’nook Scholars Antonio Fortugno, Emily Parker, Mick Elliott, and Sophia Weston. Courtesy Mick Elliott
Representation matters. When it comes to business and leadership, it’s clear we still have a long way to go to achieve equitable, diverse and inclusive workplaces and in our journey toward Truth and Reconciliation.

For many Indigenous business students, it can be challenging to experience how some of their cultures are often at odds with traditional business ideologies and an educational curriculum primarily built on Western pedagogies and perspectives. Recognizing this, there is a strong need to ensure that Indigenous business students have the space, opportunities and networks to further develop and evolve their leadership skills and business knowledge while seeing that there is a space for Indigenous worldviews to be welcomed into conversations.

Enter the Ch’nook Scholars program.

Originally launched as a scholarship initiative at the University of British Columbia for Indigenous business students, the program has since expanded to include leadership training, business education and networking opportunities with Indigenous business leaders and peers, in addition to providing scholarship funds. Haskayne stands out as the sole location for Ch’nook Scholars outside of British Columbia, a connection largely fostered by the beloved late David Lertzman, PhD, who led the program in Calgary until his passing in 2021.

The UCalgary spots for Ch’nook Scholars are generously supported by  Canadian Western Bank (CWB).

"CWB is dedicated to creating meaningful change by working with community partners who are strengthening equality in Canada," says Lacey Jansen, manager of community engagement at CWB. "By supporting education programs like Ch’nook Scholars, we hope to empower the next generation of Indigenous business leaders and contribute to diversity and reconciliation in Canada."

The Ch’nook Scholars Program is designed to create space for Indigenous cultures within business education, providing a unique platform for students to connect, learn and grow as future leaders. Through the voices of participants like Haskayne students Sophia Weston, BComm’24, Antonio Fortugno, BComm and Eng’24 and Mick Elliott, PhD’27 the importance of Indigenized and decolonized business education becomes critical.

Understanding the importance of Indigenous cultures to business

The program exposes students to diverse perspectives within Indigenous communities, helping them appreciate the similarities and differences. Sophia Weston, a fourth-year finance student, emphasizes the value of meeting peers from various First Nations and cultural backgrounds: "It’s a really good chance to solidify your understanding of, ’Okay, we’re all’here as one group, but we’re all still different.’" Weston adds, "For example, people that are coming from the coast might have stronger opinions about pipeline issues or water issues that their reserves may have faced, whereas people from treaty land in Saskatchewan are facing very different issues and hold very different opinions on those matters. It reinforces the understanding that we’re all the same, but we still have our differences."

Similarly, Antonio Fortugno, a fifth-year engineering and business dual degree student, found the program eye-opening. Before joining, he was unaware of how Indigenous cultures could co-exist with business. Through presentations by Indigenous leaders, he learned the mutual benefits of ensuring cultural values are reflected within business practices. "I didn’t know that Indigenous cultures could be integrated with business practices - I thought they were two separate things," says Fortugno. "And then at Ch’nook Scholar events, they showed us what was possible - and that it actually goes both ways. It not only helps your business, but it helps strengthen your culture and maybe other people’s ties to your culture or other people’s understanding."

Building an Indigenous business community and expanding professional skills

Beyond understanding how Indigenous cultures can be woven into business, the Ch’nook Scholars program stands out as a safe space for Indigenous students to feel seen - and heard.

"Having a room full of Indigenous business scholars who are interested in doing business is phenomenal," says Elliott. "It creates that shared interest, where you’re bringing the Indigenous values to the table - and that’s the priority. From there, that can infuse a different worldview into the conversation where you can be really open and honest about how that connects with everyone’s diverse perspective on business from their unique cultural lens. That’s really important."

Weston echoed a similar sentiment: "Indigenous business students are a pretty small niche group. It’s really cool to get to meet people from similar cultures who share similar career paths and goals. Forming these relationships allows us to identify similarities that we might not find with some of our other friends at business school."

Bringing together Indigenous business students and valuable industry leaders affords space for Ch’nook Scholar participants to build strong connections with industry professionals and peers. Fortugno found that the program’s networking opportunities provided insights and advice that helped shape his career path.

"Meeting other Scholars and creating a strong network was the most impactful part of the program," says Fortugno, BComm’24. "They provided invaluable professional advice - especially in helping me decide on my business major, accounting. They guided me on what a career path in accounting looks like and explained the CPA process. Emily, another UCalgary student, gave me helpful insights about Haskayne professors and the accounting program. As I progress in my career, I want to give back in the same way that I’ve been supported, which I believe is really important. And so that’s something that I want to focus on in the future."

As a mature PhD candidate and seasoned professional, Elliott was inspired to move more into the role of an Elder-in-training. "In this space, I have 25 years of business acumen. Bringing that into this environment, I feel as though I’m stepping into an elder in training role, where I can share my breadth of experience and encourage folks to explore and pursue terminal degrees such as PhDs and not just stop at undergraduate or master’s degrees," says Elliott. "I stood as a representative of the Indigenous Peoples to say, ’We need your voices. You’ll encounter obstacles, but you can step through them - and people like me are here to support you.’ As I start to approach the end of my career, supporting future generations will be my focus. It’s more about me giving back than receiving - reflecting the reciprocity of this space. That’s what humbles me most about the program."

A rewarding experience that delivers lifelong relationships and opportunities

While both Fortugno and Weston acknowledged that the Ch’nook Scholars program is a time commitment and the application process can seem daunting, they strongly encourage other students to apply --  citing the program as one of the most enriching experiences during their educational journey. 

"I highly recommend doing it. It’s definitely been one of the best parts of my university experience," says Weston. "The bonds I have with people there that I’ve met for only a couple of days over the year are as strong as, if not stronger than, the people I’m in class with every single day. For me, it’s helped me look into my family heritage more and become even more interested in that."

Fortugno emphasizes that those considering the program should not let the application process discourage them. "Just apply. I was kind of hesitant to apply at first, as scholarship applications can be a bigger time commitment and I was busy, but the people you meet and the experiences you have make it highly worthwhile. And your essay doesn’t need to be perfect --  you just need to be honest."

The Ch’nook Scholars program has left an undeniable impact on Elliott as he plans to continue to be involved for years to come.

"I realized that I’m on a journey of working towards what kind of Elder I want to be known as," he says. "As I look around me, I have a responsibility to share the gifts of knowledge that I’ve been given throughout my life. So, I see this cohort and future cohorts as an opportunity to engage in the transfer of knowledge with these folks."

His advice for prospective Ch’nook Scholars: "What are you waiting for? Seriously, this is such a wonderful program. Apply, apply, apply!"

Applications for the 2024/25 Ch’nook Scholars Program at Haskayne open in early September.