It still hasn’t completely sunk in for Brent Tookenay.
“It was a big surprise” he said. “It’s a pretty nice honour, it was not expected at all. It was pretty cool.”
In an announcement that might not be so surprising to those who know him and his work, Tookenay was revealed to be among the recipients of the Governor General of Canada’s Meritorious Service Decoration for February 2021. Along with several dozen other individuals from across Canada, Tookenay was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (M.S.M.) “for leading the growth of the Seven Generations Education Institute, where he has helped facilitate the increased participation and success of Indigenous students” according to the release announcing his recognition.
According to the Governor General’s website, the Meritorious Service Decorations were established to “recognize remarkable contributions in many different fields of endeavour” which in the past has included advocacy for health care services, significant research and humanitarian efforts.
“Past recipients have tackled poverty in their community, improved education opportunities for children in Canada and abroad, or raised awareness of important causes and issues,” the website explains.
“They inspire us and make us proud.”
For Tookenay, who has worked for SGEI in some capacity since 1992 and is now the CEO, the award may be unexpected but no less significant. Still, he stressed that as much as it is an individual recognition, his work can’t be done without many other helping hands.
“I always give credit where credit is due and there’s a lot of good people on our First Nation communities and in Seven Gens that help make and create these opportunities for our communities and for the Treaty #3 area every day,” he said.
“It’s not just Brent Tookenay. I have the chief and councils in the area, our board has been fantastic in helping with the vision and moving forward with this, and I really really want to acknowledge them, because you don’t just do this stuff on your own. It’s a nice honour, I guess I accept it on behalf of all the work over the years that people have done, and that we’ve done together.”
Granted, he said, it does come with one downside.
“I feel like I’m older now when you start getting these types of things,” he joked.
“People are like ‘shouldn’t that guy be retired yet?'”
Still, through the jokes, Tookenay remains humble and fiercely proud of the work SGEI has done through the years, from its inception in the early 80’s through to the present, building ties with the larger communities in the area and establishing a first-rate education institution. SGEI now has three post-secondary campuses and provides more than 20 communities in northwestern Ontario with opportunities that include high school programs, employment training and other adult learning programs.
“It’s an organization I believe in, in what it stands for and what the chiefs and leadership created back in 1983,” Tookenay said.
“Really just a continuation of Delbert Horton and what he did for years in fighting for the opportunities for indigenous people in the area, so I think being able to be part of that, to continue that on and move things forward is really special for me and for my family. I couldn’t do it without them either.
Education is a continually ongoing effort, and much has changed since Tookenay began with SGEI back in 1992, when it was still called the Rainy Lake Ojibway Education Authority. In the years since its formation the institute and those who work for it have always pushed for an even playing field for their communities, a goal they envisioned from the start.
“I think what’s really changed a lot over the last five years is something that Delbert and the board way back when did, which was Indigenous control of Indigenous education,” he explained.
“With the Indigenous Institutes Act in Ontario of 2017, that now has allowed us to create and credential our own programs through the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council (IAESC), and that’s something that was a longstanding goal for our board; to have that opportunity. So we’re now a pillar in post-secondary education with colleges and universities.”
Bigger than just having a successful education institute and standing equal among others, though, is the fact that these buildings in this corner of the province has allowed many people access to something they might not have otherwise had.
“I think we provide accessibility to programming and training and education to people that maybe don’t have the ability to move to a bigger city to access post-secondary, or they have family or work commitments,” Tookenay said.
“I think the world is understanding that our communities and Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge systems have been something that has been overlooked or oppressed over the years, and I think what our Indigenous institutes are doing is bringing that to the forefront. Yes, they are grounded in Anishinaabe ways and language and culture and ceremony, but they also can help and support non-Indigenous people as well. I think our institute is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous because our board believes in our mission statement, that educational opportunities are for everyone, not just for a certain select group of people. I think if you look at Reconciliation, people working and learning together and supporting each other, that’s what’s going to help make a better Canada and a better system for people.”
While Tookenay is quick to acknowledge the work of many others who contributed to his recognition, his colleagues and others in his orbit are as quick to reinforce why he is so deserving of that award. Angela Mainville, the director of post-secondary education for SGEI, noted Tookenay is a pillar who has helped to elevate the institution to where it is today.
“Brent values students and community impact above all else. His leadership brings out the best in everyone in the SGEI community from the students to the Board of Directors,” Mainville said.
“His growth mindset and passion for the future of Indigenous education made it possible for SGEI to achieve organizational accreditation in Ontario’s post-secondary landscape.”
Secondary school principal Sean Taggart, meanwhile, noted the award is well deserved due to, among other things, the advocating for Indigenous education Tookenay has done through the years.
“This is a highly prestigious award that recognizes Brent’s outstanding achievements and accomplishments in Indigenous Education,” Taggart said.
“Brent has long been an advocate for education in the Treaty 3 area and beyond and his commitment to expanding access and opportunities for communities and students is undeniable. This is a very well-deserved award for all his hard work, dedication, and perseverance over the years.
While plans for an in-person ceremony to bestow the medals are on hold due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and Canada’s current lack of a Governor General following the resignation of Julie Payette earlier this year, Tookenay and Seven Generations Education Institute won’t be slowing down with the important work they do with local communities, such as their ongoing efforts at promoting Indigenous languages through classes on offer at the campus.
“We’ve been able to really support the grounding of our institute and Anishinaabe language and culture and ceremony,” he said.
“It’s such an important part for our First Nations and I’m just really happy they are the driving force and we’re just connecting the dots. Without our First Nations and the people they’ve put forward to help with the strategy and all the resources and to be able to be a part of building speakers and allowing our First Nations to continue on with language and ceremony is a really important part of what Seven Gens does. If we’re not grounded in the language and culture, Indigenous education isn’t really Indigenous education. I think it’s so important to have the opportunities for our young ones to connect with the language and culture and have that be part of their everyday lives here at Seven Gens.”
By Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative reporter