Grad Joni Shawana blends community work with passion for teaching culture

Joni Shawana has spent the last 25 years working in the community and educating people on Indigenous cultures. Shawana is Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Indian Reserve and she is a graduate of George Brown’s Community Worker program.

When Shawana was eight years old, she moved off the reserve in Wiikwemkoong to Toronto, but kept close connections to her community. Her experience in the Community Worker program built on a long history of working with community members, and sharing and teaching about her culture, going back to when she was 15 years old.

GBC alumna Joni Shawana

How did you end up going into community work?

It goes back to when I was young and my mom’s work within the community. After we moved off the reserve to Toronto, over the years my brother and I had to take transit downtown to meet mom so we could make our way to my brother’s hockey league after mom got off work. Mom was working at Anishnawbe Toronto Health during this time. While we waited, I helped out there, and I got to learn a lot about my culture and community. That experience introduced me to community work and what it meant to work within a community.

Then at 15, I was hired as a summer student with Toronto Council Fire Native Culture Centre, where I helped run a summer camp. It was around this time I started singing with our family powwow drum called BiimSkoNodin and joined hand-drumming with women drum groups.

I also taught about my culture as a young student in grade school. I faced racism from some students who didn’t know about Indigenous cultures. But my parents taught me to be proud of who I was and where I came from, and I started educating the students at school about my culture. I was supported by my teachers to educate about Manitoulin Island, native spirituality, ceremony, and some of the teachings that I knew. That was at a Catholic high school, around the time when there still stood a residential school in Canada.

So I was always involved in teaching about culture and connecting with community, and that’s what intrigued me to take the Community Worker program at George Brown. My mom also went through the Community Worker program at George Brown after she finished the Community Health Worker Training Program at Anishnawbe Toronto Health, which is a partnership with George Brown.

Were you and your mom in the program at the same time?

Yes, we ended up going to George Brown together. After her first year in the Community Health Worker program, we ended in our second year of GBC together. Today my mom is a counsellor with Nellie’s Shelter, where she is focused on violence against women.

I must share too, that my dad was also a George Brown student back in the 80s for HVAC, so I was the second-generation graduate in my family from George Brown. And now my nephew was recently accepted by George Brown for game design. I told him that it’s so cool that he’s going to be the third generation of George Brown graduates! I know this definitely makes dad smile down on us.

Tell me about your career after George Brown.

I was a young Indigenous girl, aged 21, when I graduated from GBC. To me, this was a rare success because not too many of my family members graduated this early, nor my peers. Immediately after graduation, I was hired by Tumivut Youth Shelter and through my knowledge, skills and experience, I was quickly promoted to a supervisor role. It was a great learning experience for me being a supervisor at a young age. My youth clients were fascinated knowing a peer was the shelter supervisor.

A few years later, my career shifted and I moved into a role where I worked on a project involving Indigenous recreational and health experts to create a toolkit for physical activity based around our culture, which is where I shifted into learning about communications.

For a while I continued to do community work at various Native agencies, and now I am teaching about culture as a cultural support with an EarlyON Centre. I work with children and families to teach culture to our community by sharing songs, teaching the basics of Anishnawbemowin language to preschool-aged children, as well as the medicine wheel and other ways of promoting culture.

Did you think you would end up teaching your culture as part of your career?

At the reserve, culture is something you do every day. I didn’t know what “culture” was until I moved to the city. I have had many opportunities to reflect on what culture really means and I have realized that my childhood was about “mino bimaadiziwin” (living a good life) where the everyday life was growing up on the land, surrounded by nature, fresh waters, homemakers, crafts and my people. In the urban life, I know this as “culture.”

Looking ahead, I want to blend my two passions – community work and culture. Today, I am completing my BA in Culture & Expression with a strong concentration on communication courses. It is my hope that I will soon get to blend everything together and make a dream become reality.

June is a time when many people want to learn about Indigenous cultures. What does National Indigenous Peoples Day and History Month mean to you?

To me, it’s a great time to show our pride and share our culture with everyone. But I really wish it doesn’t have to be just a day or a month. In Canada, I think we have a long way to go to truth and reconciliation, as we still have a lot of First Nation communities without clean water. So I hope that Canadians will take this time to learn more about our culture and our people, especially to identify the differences among the different nations across the country and how we can come together as a community to face the challenges we still endure today.