Native studies graduate excels

(Edmonton) When Vernon Watchmaker crosses the stage Nov. 16 to claim his University of Alberta degree, he says he’ll feel a lifting of his spirit as he comes to the end of a long journey.

“It will be a big thing off my shoulders, of what I have gone through to complete this.”

The father of seven children between the ages of 14 and four, including six-year-old twins, Watchmaker has juggled responsibilities and walked a bumpy road as a dad, husband, worker and student to achieve his degree from the Faculty of Native Studies. The winding path included more than one man’s share of troubles he says, including financial sacrifices so heavy that he and his family found themselves homeless and living out of a tent for a time while he attended classes.

“It was a pretty hard time, but we got through it.”

A resident of the Kehewin Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta, Watchmaker, a soft-spoken man in his 30s, graduated high school in his community and was offered a job as a teacher’s aide at a local school. Advised by a high school counsellor that he didn’t have the marks or the aptitude to pursue post-secondary education, Watchmaker took the classroom job, but soon found it wasn’t for him, even though his father was a teacher.

“I knew it wasn’t really my calling to be a teacher,” he says. After a year, Watchmaker left to seek other opportunities in Edmonton, with “no expectations but to work.” That he did, as a roofer, working on and off for four years. One day, during idle lunch break chatter, his boss asked Watchmaker if he could see himself working as a labourer for the rest of his career.

“I didn’t know what to say to him, and then I told him I kind of wanted to go back to school.” From there, the young man went through a rocky period of transition, breaking off a personal relationship that had produced two children, quitting his job, partying with buddies and eventually returning to his parents’ home in Kehewin, where with their help, he regrouped.

“My parents assisted me through traditional ways, which kept me grounded and gave me a sense of purpose, being proud of where I came from.”

Watchmaker returned to Edmonton, this time with the goal of getting a higher education. He took a university entrance program at Yellowhead Tribal College and then applied—and was accepted—to three post-secondary schools, the U of A among them. It was a sweet accomplishment, as he recalled the words of the counsellor who’d told him to forget about university. “It really boosted my confidence to pursue that route.”

He chose to attend the U of A, warmed by earlier visits to campus, where a friend was already attending classes. Watchmaker even got a taste of classroom life after sitting in on a course and tagging along on a field trip one day. “I wasn’t even registered at the U of A at the time. I carried a couple of books around,” he remembers with a chuckle.

But the visit gave him a chance to see what students were doing. “I saw a course setting firsthand and it really intrigued me.”

The road still held twists, though. He enrolled in 2003 and took a light course load for the next three years, starting a family with his wife, whom he’d met while attending Yellowhead Tribal College.

In 2006, he had to put aside his studies and work to support the eldest children from his earlier relationship, but he had an idea of what he wanted to do, and sought work in the field of politics and governance. He landed a position with Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and worked there until 2009, when he felt pressured to finish his degree, so he resigned and returned to school.

Though it left him without an income and resulted in the loss of his home and in upheaval for his young family, Watchmaker looks back now and sees “a blessing in disguise. Now I have completed my degree—it’s done.”

Without an income, the family found themselves living for a time in a city campground before they were able to find a place. “It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make, the sacrifice of us being very fragile.” Even after his wife found a job, Watchmaker still had to juggle his studies with caring for the children. “They were very trying times.”

During the summers, he began working for Kehewin Cree Nation Peacekeepers, an organization that advises industry and government agencies on traditional land use rights. Today, Watchmaker works full-time for that organization, helping gather the stories of Cree elders to document the importance of hunting, gathering, fishing and trapping as it pertains to preserving traditional First Nation lands.

While at the U of A, he also earned a certificate in Aboriginal governance and partnership, and hopes to take on leadership roles. And though his path to a degree was a long one, Watchmaker found his time at the U of A satisfying. “I liked being able to share thoughts and ideas, to converse with people of different backgrounds, talk about issues and see other points of view.”

Along with his wife and parents, to whom he is grateful for their support, Watchmaker plans to bring some of his children to his convocation as well. “I want them to see how far you can go in school.”