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Indigenous Leaders: Turning silver into gold

Christine John an inspiration, leading Reconciliation Action Plan at OPG
Christine John is pictured at Ontario Power Generation's (OPG) Abitibi Canyon Generating Station north of Smooth Rock Falls.

You could learn a lot about Christine John by this one fact. That of all the awards, recognitions, and accomplishments she’s had in her career, the recognition that means the most to her is an eagle feather an Elder gave her during a private moment. He was the firekeeper watching over the Sacred Fire during a National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in her adopted community of Saugeen First Nation.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to put some tobacco on the fire,’” John said. “As I approached, he said he wanted to give me something. I thought it was papers or something (for work). But when he turned around, he had an eagle feather in his hand. He said, ‘I want to present this to you… You’ve been here a number of years and you’ve brought so much positivity and healing and help to our community.’”

It is perhaps difficult for a non-Indigenous person to understand the gravity and importance of that gift. John compared it to a Medal of Honour. It is recognition that her work and achievements are making a difference in many different ways.

Christine John, Ontario Power Generation's senior manager of Indigenous relations, is pictured with her children, Louis (left) and Morris, on Orange Shirt Day, which recognizes the legacy of Canada's residential school system. | Photo supplied by Christine John

Today, John is senior manager of Indigenous relations at Ontario Power Generation (OPG). But it was a long and windy road. Growing up in Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation on the North Channel of Lake Huron, she initially wanted to be a lawyer. Not that she knew any — she said that her only exposure to the profession was from watching characters on TV.

“I thought it looked like an interesting career path,” John said. “I think inside me is an advocacy-type personality anyway.”

She went to the University of Windsor for political science as pre-law, though eventually John decided it wasn’t the profession for her. By that point, business interested her so she worked towards her MBA through the University of Phoenix.

That opened up doors for John. She moved from Windsor to Saugeen First Nation and met a woman from nearby Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation at a job fair. She asked John to send in her résumé.

“I had an influx from different banks really interested in having someone to support Indigenous banking,” John said.

She ultimately spent a year at RBC in Kincardine before she was recruited by Bruce Power as a workforce planning analyst.

“What a great opportunity… getting to know all the jobs at the company. I learned a lot about the workforce — the number of jobs it takes to run a plant,” John said.

She worked at Bruce Power for 16 years, moving to different positions including diversity lead and communications specialist — Indigenous relations. So when OPG created the new position of senior manager of Indigenous relations, John was the perfect fit for the company. It was a perfect fit for John as well, who appreciated the groundbreaking work the 100-year-old company had already accomplished in terms of Indigenous relations.

“It makes me feel proud to work for a company with that kind of history — a desire to make a difference. OPG went above and beyond,” she said.

John contributed to OPG’s next steps forward.

“When I joined the company, they were in the middle of the process for PAR recertification.”

PAR is the Progressive Aboriginal Relations certificate presented by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). At that point, OPG was at the Silver Level. John led a team that ultimately upgraded that standing to Gold Level, the highest possible PAR-level certification. John also helped put together OPG’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

“We can’t talk about OPG without talking about our Reconciliation Action Plan,” she said. “Our team led those conversations and explained, ‘What is a Reconciliation Action Plan?’ It goes back to addressing the gaps. They relate to employment, they relate to Indigenous participation in the economy, and they relate to environmental stewardship.”

Christine John is pictured at Ontario Power Generation's (OPG) Abitibi Canyon Generating Station north of Smooth Rock Falls. | Photo supplied by Christine John

John said they set aggressive targets. Two years in, and she’s happy with the progress so far.

“These targets should be ambitious and challenging,” John said, though underlining that concepts such as inclusion and equal economic opportunities should be a given in our society. “It shouldn’t be an effort or an initiative. It should just be common.”

Currently, John's team is refreshing OPG’s RAP to include new targets and commitments.

John has also had an impact on Saugeen. John is an active community member including coaching soccer, and recognizes she is now a role model herself.

“My main pull in anything I do, it’s to make a difference in the narrative. I want my kids and grandkids to know a different reality than I knew,” John said. “I did not know an engineer. I did not know what nuclear power was. I did not know that Indigenous people could have businesses and actually participate in other businesses outside of the reserve… Do you know how amazing it is for my two boys to see (Brandon) Montour and (Zach) Whitecloud (two professional hockey players of Indigenous descent) in the Stanley Cup playoffs?”

John works hard to be part of that change — and clearly she is succeeding at every step of her career.

“Whatever role I’m in, I aspire to make things better,” John said.