EDMONTON – Wiikwemkoong band member Cheryl Whiskeyjack (Kaboni) has spent her entire career “going above and beyond in her work to help vulnerable populations and to bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships among a wide range of community groups and organizations.” Ms. Whiskeyjack is one of four people being recognized with honorary degrees by the University of Alberta. The honourary degree is the highest honour the university confers and, in the words of the university’s chancellor Peggy Garritty, it serves to “exemplify the power of one person to create positive change in local, national and international communities.”
“The recipients we’re announcing today certainly meet that test. Individually, their accomplishments are outstanding and each one of them has made contributions that extend well beyond their professional lives,” said Ms. Garritty. “They are inspiring role models for our students and our entire community, and we’re proud to recognize them with honorary degrees from the University of Alberta.”
In recognition of her work, the University of Alberta is conferring upon Ms. Whiskeyjack an honorary doctor of laws.
“I feel a little bit in disbelief,” said Ms. Whiskeyjack when reached by phone by The Expositor on Friday. “You do what you do every day, so it comes as a surprise when someone offers you this kind of recognition. When you do what you love, it even almost seems wrong to get paid for it.”
Ms. Whiskeyjack began her career as a youth worker in 1994 at the then newly-opened Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. That social service organization provides programs and services for Edmonton’s urban Indigenous youth. Ms. Whiskeyjack has grown with the organization and is now its executive director, overseeing 100 staff and more than 20 programs. Her leadership made her an invaluable member on numerous boards that serve society’s most vulnerable, notes the citation announcing her honour. Ms. Whiskeyjack is also a general member of the National Advisory Council on Poverty and currently serves as co-chair of End Poverty Edmonton, ensuring a focus on reconciliation.
Ms. Whiskeyjack holds firmly to a belief in the power of post-secondary institutions to create change, belief that has resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship with the university. Her citation notes that Ms. Whiskeyjack has been “an excellent mentor to U of A academics, helping them build respectful relationships with Indigenous communities, and has taken a leadership role in the Faculty of Extension’s Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families.”
Ms. Whiskeyjack is the daughter of Robert Kaboni of Kaboni and the niece of elder Gerry Kaboni. She describes her father as a faithful subscriber to The Expositor and notes that he devours each edition voraciously for news from home. “He doesn’t part with any of the papers,” she laughs.
Ms. Whiskeyjack and her father make every effort to return home each summer, although that has not been the case in the past couple of years for obvious reasons. “I really miss it badly,” she said. “I’ll be pretty excited when I am able to return.”
Like many Islanders, Ms. Whiskeyjack left Manitoulin and her Kaboni home to pursue economic opportunities. “My dad always said ‘you can’t live off the scenery’,” she said.
Manitoulin’s loss has obviously been Edmonton’s gain and The Expositor joins the community of Wiikwemkoong in congratulating Ms. Whiskeyjack on this latest honour.