Self-identity has an important role in shaping each of our lives, it’s a process that develops over a lifetime. For Scotiabank Program Manager, Jessica McKenzie, an instrumental moment in her journey to self-discovery was finding out about her First Nations heritage. After becoming aware, Jessica took many steps to understand and celebrate Indigenous culture from a course at university to becoming an executive member of the Scotiabank Aboriginal Network. Jessica shares how understanding who she is made her a more confident person and she sends a heartwarming message to young Indigenous women seeking to build their careers.
By Shelley White
Jessica McKenzie grew up in Toronto with questions about her identity. A person of mixed Indonesian and First Nations heritage, Jessica knew only half the story of her background.
“I didn’t even really know that I was Indigenous until I received my [First Nations status] card, it wasn’t really spoken about in my family,” she says. “We were Catholic. We didn’t go to traditional learnings, we didn’t go to powwows.”
In order to learn more about her First Nations side, Jessica took a course in Indigenous studies while doing a liberal arts degree at York University in Toronto. The course was life-changing, says Jessica, opening her eyes to the crises facing Indigenous people in Canada and giving her clarity about what she wanted to do with her career.
“I started to understand not only who I am as a person, but what I wanted to do for my people,” says Jessica, who is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
Jessica volunteered at Indigenous Friendship Centres around the city – community hubs offering culturally-based services to Indigenous people in urban settings. Then, in a moment of serendipity, she met a Scotiabank recruiter who helped her continue her journey of self-discovery. Jessica had applied to be a bank teller in her third year of university and the recruiter, who was also Indigenous, recognized her potential.
“She said, ‘How would you feel about recruiting First Nations individuals across Canada?’ I just jumped at it,” Jessica says.
As a diversity recruiter for Scotiabank, Jessica travelled from coast to coast, visiting reservations and First Nations events on weekends to make connections and spread the word about opportunities at Scotiabank.
“I started building a rapport and a trust with [the people I met], so they could see a little bit of me within themselves,” she says.
When she was offered a full-time role at Scotiabank, Jessica decided to take an even bigger leap. She completed the final year of her degree at York while working full-time at Scotiabank.
“We want you to be leaders. We need your voice. We need you to be resilient and this is exactly why our people have been fighting for so long. Don’t give up on a dream, shoot for the stars.”
“It was absolutely intense – I was working 9 am to 5 pm at Scotiabank and going to school from 6 pm to 10 pm,” she says. “But it was so worth it. I loved working with people within my community so I just couldn’t give up working at the bank.”
Now, as program manager technology at Scotiabank, Jessica manages two programs that she created from scratch. One is a technology internship program that gives university students the opportunity to work in areas like software engineering, software development and data science. The other program, called IgnITion, is for recent university graduates – a full-time, 18-month program that allows grads to rotate through different areas within the bank’s Technology Solutions Group.
“We get them to dip their toes into a bunch of different areas, so they can truly understand what they want to do for a career,” she says.
Jessica is also an executive member of the Scotiabank Aboriginal Network, one of the bank’s volunteer Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). The group organizes “lunch and learn” activities for Scotiabank staff, “sharing our culture with the rest of the bank,” Jessica says.
The Scotiabank Aboriginal Network recently ran events celebrating National Indigenous History Month in June. This year, they partnered with the bank’s Pride ERG to invite a guest speaker who is two-spirited – in Indigenous culture, an individual who identifies as both male and female. They also brought in a keynote speaker to talk about Truth and Reconciliation, an issue that is close to Jessica’s heart.
“His main focus was, what can we do as people within the community to educate others on how to rebuild our relationships, not only with ourselves but with the land?” she says.
Jessica notes that Scotiabank has a long track record of working closely with Indigenous communities. The Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB) has awarded Scotiabank their Progressive Aboriginal Relations “Gold Standing” designation three years in a row.
Scotiabank recently partnered with Our Children’s Medicine (OCM), a not-for-profit organization devoted to helping Indigenous job seekers overcome barriers to employment. (While the Canadian unemployment rate is 6 per cent, the Canadian Indigenous youth unemployment rate is 24 per cent.) OCM helps businesses improve the application process by prioritizing skills over work experience.
As well, Scotiabank unveiled their Legacy Space in August, which was built in partnership with the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. The room, located at Scotiabank’s Bay street headquarters in downtown Toronto, features an installation based on the graphic novel The Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. It tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died while fleeing a residential school. People who use the room will have the opportunity to learn about Chanie’s story and be inspired to act in the name of reconciliation.
It’s important to provide connections to Indigenous culture in the workplace, says Jessica. Meeting Indigenous colleagues at Scotiabank meant a great deal to her when she first started at the bank and helped her see it as her “second home,” she says. That’s why the Scotiabank Aboriginal Network created a mentorship circle where they pair new hires with more seasoned Scotiabank employees who are also Indigenous.
“It’s great to have that friend, that guiding hand and that community not only at home but in your workplace as well,” she says.
While Jessica exudes confidence now, when she first started at the bank, she was faced with a feeling of imposter syndrome, “like, I shouldn’t be here, I don’t deserve this,” she says. “Speaking to a lot of my peers, I discovered it’s a common feeling among Indigenous people. So a big thing that I remind other Indigenous employees coming into the bank is that they were chosen for a reason.”
Jessica has a message for young Indigenous women seeking to build their careers.
“Know that you’re exactly what our ancestors prayed for,” she says. “We want you to be leaders. We need your voice. We need you to be resilient and this is exactly why our people have been fighting for so long. Don’t give up on a dream, shoot for the stars.”