Prized Minds: Western Alumni offer Solutions to Indigenous and Employment Issues

Since September 2016, Ontario’s most creative minds have been developing solutions for challenges that face both Ontarian and Canadian society. The Lieutenant Governor Visionaries Prize, announced by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in partnership with Walrus Foundation, provides these innovative thinkers the opportunity to present their solutions to Canada’s most pressing issues to a panel of the province’s thought leaders. 3 of the 30+ finalists were Western alumni: Dianne Lalonde, Graeme Young, and Jessica Bertschmann.

Dianne Lalonde, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Western University, submitted her idea under the category of Reconciliation.  Her solution focuses on using public policy to prevent the harms of cultural appropriation. Lalonde chose this topic because it “related to [her] own worry about if [she] was appropriating or not.” She conducted extensive research on the topic, focusing on the cultural appropriation of Indigenous Peoples property. Lalonde firmly believes that cultural appropriation must first be recognized as harmful, particularly in two possible ways: misrecognition and economic exploitation. Lalonde defines misrecognition as “the stereotyping of a culture and cultural members” and economic exploitation as “taking the labour of another without just compensation”. To protect people against these harms, Lalonde proposes that Ontario’s reconciliation efforts prioritize the protection of cultural property. She also offers some advice in how we as a community can join her fight against cultural appropriation:

Under the same category of Reconciliation, Jessica Bertschmann, who has recently graduated Western with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and genetics, centred her proposed solution on the AIDS epidemic in Northern and Indigenous Youth. Her work towards countering this issue is driven by her own shock and devastation at the fact that the rate of new HIV infection in Aboriginal Canadians has increased over the years while the rate of new HIV infection in the country as a whole has been slowly declining.

Thus, Bertschmann proposed the fulfillment of this need to the LGVP panel. She explains that “the HIV prevention program would be backed by current research, not public opinion, and Indigenous community members themselves would play a leading role in designing and implementing the program.” In addition to this, she supports the establishment of more satellite clinics in northern communities which would not only have convenient after-school hours but also include healthcare practitioners properly trained to “honor language barriers, be violence and trauma informed and to make no assumptions about gender or sexuality.” Bertschmann attributes her inspiration for her ideas to Western University’s very own Dr. William Fisher whose research focuses on “social and psychological determinants of sexual and reproductive health related behaviours, including sexual health risk and preventive practices.” This research formed the foundation for Bertschmann’s solution as it guided her towards the principles needed for meaningful and effective AIDS preventative behaviour: perceived vulnerability to infection, information directly relevant to prevention, and belief of self-efficacy. Bertschmann is now studying at the University of Calgary pursuing her MSc in bioinformatics, and she is hoping to “help develop new technologies to better study the transmission of infectious disease such as HIV at the molecular level”.

Graeme Young, PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, focused on the category of Inclusive Prosperity for his solution. He chose this topic due to his own dissatisfaction regarding the crisis of youth employment:

To combat this urgent issue, Young presents an idea which addresses two defining features of Ontario’s labour market: the unemployment and underemployment of young people and employers’ inability to fill high-skilled positions with fittingly capable people. He proposes that Ontario introduce a dual education system founded upon both classroom learning and vocational training: “In such a system, high school students would apply for temporary paid positions at existing firms in a wide variety of industries… and would spend two to three years gaining invaluable workplace experience while studying a curriculum that has been designed with the cooperation of employers to meet industry demands.” Young explains that this solution, if implemented, would strengthen the economy, promote investment and innovation, and create a balance of academic credentials and high-demand skills and experience in the labour market. This dual education system is already in use in Germany, which has one of the lowest youth unemployment averages in the world and thus inspired Young’s proposal. Young has recently worked at the United Nations to promote human rights in the Middle East, and it was through this experience that he realized the importance of inclusive prosperity being grounded within the language of human rights. For example, having ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Canada has agreed to not only recognize the right to work but also provide “‘technical and vocational guidance and training programmes’ in pursuit of ‘full and productive employment.’” In consideration of this, Young therefore poses the following significant questions: “Is our government really doing everything it can to uphold [the right to work]? Should we not demand something more?”

Through these three outstanding Western alumni, we gain only a glimpse of the flaws in our world–flaws our flourishing minds can still fix. We are young and quick, intelligent and innovative. Like Dianne Lalonde, Jessica Bertschmann, and Graeme Young, we have opportunities trembling at our fingertips, ready for the taking. We have solutions to develop and questions to answer. We, as students and human beings, are tasked with the duty of recognizing what is wrong with our world and, acting upon this, forging a better future for humanity.

We are capable of creating positive change; we must simply be willing.

You can read more about the LG Visionaries Prize and the winners here.

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