The NWT On The Land Collaborative is a collective of partners from government, industry, philanthropy, and beyond, working together to support land-based programs and projects in the NWT. Each of these partner organizations has a representative that participates in quarterly meetings and annual funding decisions. This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the people and organizations that make the Collaborative possible. You can read the other profiles here.
Jess Dunkin’s resume is an interesting mix of two different kinds of experience: outdoor education and academia. She has instructor-level certifications in canoeing and first aid and a PhD in Canadian history. She has taught history and gender studies at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa and led canoe trips in the shield country of Northern Ontario. She has written articles for Pathways: the Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education and Histoire Social/Social History. The one thing that ties these two lives together is Jess’s love of the outdoors. Both have been valuable in her current position as Director of On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) and as the NWTRPA’s representative on the NWT On The Land Collaborative.
Jess has always had a special relationship to the outdoors. She grew up on a farm in Eastern Ontario and spent part of every summer at camp and her grandparents’ cottage: “I know that I need to be outside…It’s a place where I feel more connected to myself, I feel more connected to the world around me, and I feel more connected to the people I’m with.” It was this love of the outdoors that led Jess to pursue work in outdoor education while in high school, first as a camp counsellor and later leading canoe trips. She continued to work at summer camps and outdoor centres while in university and at Teacher’s College. A love of history led her to graduate school in 2007, where she channeled her passion for the outdoors into her research, writing about girls’ summer camps and canoeing.
In 2014, Jess was wrapping up a postdoctoral fellowship at Queen’s University and looking for a next step. The academic job market was dire and there were few other opportunities for her in Ottawa. Jess had already been thinking about moving North, when she heard about the On the Land Programs Consultant position at the NWTRPA: “While I was in grad school I basically stopped paddling, I wasn’t really doing trips, I let my certifications lapse. I kind of thought I had left that life behind…When I started talking to Geoff [the NWTRPA’s Executive Director] about the job, I found myself circling back… and I was excited about that prospect.”
Even before relocating to Yellowknife, Jess understood that there were very real differences between the outdoor education that had been her bread and butter down south and the on the land programs that she would be supporting in the North: “To me, land-based programs are about revitalizing the deep connections between Indigenous people, their territories, and traditional knowledges/practices targeted by colonialism. Land-based programs heal people and communities and the territories they call home and ultimately, they nurture self-determination and the restoration of traditional forms of governance.”
Jess is keenly aware of being a non-Indigenous settler from the south in her position: “I have struggled to figure out how to do this work in a good way. I was really fortunate to be able to attend a Dechinta short course last spring and to be able to think through in a really practical way my responsibilities and my job, but it’s a process. I’m not there yet.”
In 2014, the NWTRPA was invited to be part of the collaborative funding workshop that was the precursor to the NWT On The Land Collaborative. ED Geoff Ray went on behalf of the organization: “(At this meeting) the Tides Foundation, Nature Conservancy, Health & Social Services, and others each stood up in the room and made contributions of tens of thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t have money to offer, but we had a pile of experience and expertise in training and relationships to communities and organizations that do on the land programs. We offered to contribute those resources, relationships, and connections.”
That experience and those relationships come from a decade of delivering and supporting on the land programs in the NWT. Between 2007 and 2010, the NWTRPA organized the Mackenzie Youth Leadership Trip. The organization took a number of learnings from that experience, particularly around programming planning, training, and risk management, and has shared them with communities looking to offer similar programs.
Geoff believes, “One of the strengths of the Collaborative is that you have a handful or more organizations who are coming from different backgrounds and mandates. You’ve government, non-government, and corporate interests coming together to support community-based programs. There are lots of different outcomes that people are working towards but I think it’s really exciting that you can have this diverse group of people working together in such a transformative way.”
Working as the NWTRPA’s representative on the Collaborative has allowed Jess to put her diverse skills to work. When the NWTRPA first became a partner in the Collaborative in early 2016 that meant lending expertise in training. As time has gone by the NWTRPA has taken on additional roles assisting with information sharing and communications. These days, the Collaborative keeps Jess busy writing copy for the website, managing the social media accounts, and writing editorial content, such as partner profiles.
For Jess, along with everything else, being part of the Collaborative has been an invaluable learning experience: “It has exposed me to lots of other people and programs that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. It has also just been really inspiring to hear about the amazing land-based programming happening in the territory on both a large and a small scale.” Jess says that she’s still not always comfortable in her position, but the Collaborative has provided a space where she can work in a good way, guided by strong Indigenous leadership and local expertise.
The NWT On The Land Collaborative depends on partners like the NWT Recreation and Parks Association to support land-based initiatives in the NWT. If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please contact Steve Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org).