Caring Society: an interview with Gina Wilson

By Lily Yumagulova

Gina Wilson’s career began in her First Nation community of Kitigan-Zibi as Executive Director of Health and Social Services and as Director of the Wanaki Treatment Centre. Ms. Wilson was a Senior Manager with the Assembly of First Nations when she joined the Federal Government in 1996 and for five years served as Director General, Aboriginal Affairs, at Correctional Service Canada. In 2003, Gina became Director General at Human Resources Skills Development Canada, before moving to the Privy Council Office (PCO) in 2005 as Director General of Engagement.

Gina was appointed in 2006 as Assistant Deputy Minister with Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada and was a partner in the implementation of a settlement agreement for approximately 80,000 survivors of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Her office oversaw the co-ordination of events leading to the Prime Minister’s historic Apology on June 11, 2008. She then was named Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Regional Operations, at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Gina was Assistant Deputy Minister of Emergency Management and Regional Operations at Public Safety Canada in 2011-2013, where she lead a national emergency management system and strategies to reduce and mitigate disasters in Canada and then was Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Treaties and Aboriginal Government, at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada focused on reconciling Aboriginal and Crown interests through the negotiation and implementation of modern treaties.

Gina was appointed as Associate Deputy Minister at Employment and Social Development Canada in March, 2014, and was appointed Associate Deputy Minister of Public Safety Canada on July 6, 2015. 

LY: You mentioned ‘caring society’ during your speech at the Roundtable last year. Could you please expand on that?

GW: I was probably thinking about my own personal experience, about having actually experienced a natural disaster as a child. In my community of Kitigan-Zibi which is near Maniwaki, Quebec, we had a flood in 1974, so the whole community was flooded as was the town of Maniwaki. This was a very vivid memorable event in my childhood. My brother was born just after that actual episode and I actually remember taking a boat around the community. The boat actually went around some of the houses of people I’d known and the houses were completely underwater right up to and above the windows. I remember thinking that some of my own cousins and friends were actually out of house and home at that point in time.

There were ways that the community came together; there were all kinds of efforts put forward by volunteers within the community. In 1974, there was not a lot of resources in the community but everyone just did absolutely everything they could to take care of one another and actually care for one another. So I see emergency management very much from a community perspective as the first line of support and as a way for communities to come together and care for one another and individuals to care for one another. So when I look at emergency management, I see caring societies; things that we do here in public safety working with provinces and territories and internationally, but also with communities, is the kind of work we and first responders do because we care about citizens and communities and their safety.

LY: What brought you to this field of practice? Could you share some of your distinguished professional journey with us (from the Wanaki Treatment Centre to becoming an ADM in Public Safety)?

GW: I have no idea what brought me here and often these things are just a matter of circumstance, I would say. So that particular community, Kitigan-Zibi, recovered very nicely. It didn’t have very much at the time: it probably had no running water in many areas or paved roads or much infrastructure.  But it has developed over the years, as have the people, into a community which is resilient and has capacity.

A lot of the focus in my community was on education and ensuring that as many youth became as educated as possible. That was the leadership philosophy for the last 40 years, I would say, developing that internal capacity. I was one of the recipients of that approach. I went to school in Maniwaki, left the reserve, and went to school in Ottawa. I actually really wanted to leave the reserve because there wasn’t a lot of opportunity there at that time. I came to school in Ottawa and then, despite wanting to leave the reserve so bad before, when I graduated from Ottawa University, I actually wanted to go home really bad and serve my community. When I say my community believed in the capacity of our people, [I mean] when I came home, by the time I was 22, I was the Director of Health and Social Services which was a fairly large organization in the community by that point.When I say large I mean about 30 employees and maybe a $1-2 million annual budget. A lot of responsibility for a 22 year old now that I think about it! I think about my own daughter who’s going to be 22 and I can’t imagine her doing that, but that was kind of the community philosophy at our time: ‘let’s educate our youth, and when they come home, let’s give them responsibilities and train them and develop them.’

So they supported me in my career in the community, and we did a lot of work to develop our resilience, develop our services – our health services, our social services for young people and so on. I learned a lot. It was probably the most difficult job I ever had, because I didn’t necessarily have the skills and competencies and abilities to lead at that point in time, but nonetheless that’s what I did.

I moved back to Ottawa and worked in other organizations like the Assembly of First Nations and then moved to the Federal Government and worked in a number of different departments within the Federal Government, primarily focused on Indigenous community issues, but have gone from time to time into other areas, particularly emergency management. When I first was at Indian and Northern Affairs, I worked on Emergency Management. Then I came to Public Safety and worked in Emergency Management as an Assistant Deputy Minister and went back and did other things around Indigenous issues. But ultimately I keep coming back to Public Safety and working on issues that are important to communities, particularly when it comes to their resilience and their development.

LY: How does your culture inform the way you approach your profession (from the Wanaki Treatment Centre to your position today)? 

 GW: The Wanaki Treatment Centre was one stop in the community; I guess I would see things from a community perspective in any job or any role that I’ve held, and I’m not just saying Indigenous community. From any part of the country, any part of the world, being able to understand and being able to go back to a community perspective as you are conducting analysis, as you’re making decisions, as you’re solving problems, as you’re developing policy, as you’re drafting advice to Ministers… it’s always having that lens of “how does this impact people at the municipal level, the community level and citizens of Canada?”. I would say that that has always been my lens and I’ve always tried to position myself for jobs or departments that do touch the community in some way, shape or form, because that’s what motivates me professionally.

LY: What are some of the recent developments in this field that you are working on that you would like to share with our readers?

GW: In my own community, we have a Guardians program whereby some young people who are employed by the community go out and look at stewardship on the land. They try to find ways to protect the turtles, the fish, the wildlife, but they also look for hazards in the community as well, including potential emergencies. And they’re very very proud of the work they do and there are many communities who are looking to establish Guardian-like programs as well.

A program out of Squamish – The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) Alert System they’ve done on the west coast – they’ve established this initiative using the EPACT Emergency Network.  It ensures residents are directly notified and kept up to date on local emergencies and they get that by telephone, by text or email. This is really important to West Coast First Nation communities, particularly for tsunami, storms and other types of emergencies such as earthquakes.  So that particular EPACT platform allows for the secure exchange of emergency information and eliminates the need for paperwork and time consuming processes that are really difficult to coordinate in emergency situations. So they are really a best practice. They are hosting an event this month; I couldn’t make it, but I definitely want to support them as a best practice.

 LY: What are some of the recent projects you are championing that you want to share with our readers?

GW: One thing we’re doing is we’re working closely with provinces and territories as well as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit organizations to develop a national emergency management plan that will allow Canada to continuously improve, and better predict and prepare for and respond to emergencies and natural disaster. It’s not to say that we don’t have plans in place, but this particular national emergency plan will integrate a lot of the initiatives and efforts that are out there.

Minister Goodale recently announced the renewed Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Task (HUSAR) and this is a program that had been in place and is now back in place to ensure sufficient capacity is available across the country. These are taskforces made up of teams of first responders such as firefighters, paramedics and so on. These taskforces play a critical role when it comes to emergency situations such as when a building collapses or there are mudslides, forest fires, flooding and so on. So we’re now able to have the capacity with this program in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Manitoba to support those municipalities to be able to respond quickly and effectively and save lives.

LY: What do you see as some of the key areas of work for Indigenous youth and students, and aspiring/emerging professionals entering this field of practice?

GW: I really want to encourage all youth but in particular Indigenous Youth and students to explore fields of work that involve any kind of first responder occupation. I’m talking about police, fire, paramedic, emergency management, search and rescue and anything that helps ensure the health and safety of their communities. There’s a tremendous amount of pride that can be associated with these types of professions.

My own partner is a wildfire forest fighter. He’s been doing that for 30 years. He is extremely proud of the work he does, absolutely loves his career, and he actually does his best to recruit other young, Indigenous people to join that career. It’s very worthy work and certainly all communities would benefit from having qualified personnel, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to fill these positions and to ensure that services are reflective of communities and are being provided by our own Indigenous people instead of relying on outside regimes to provide emergency services.

I would encourage young people to volunteer. There are programs across the country that are available. There are ways to get training in search and rescue for instance, and getting into this kind of business is a badge of pride. It’s taking care of your community, it’s taking care of your people and it really gets down to our warrior spirit and how we feel about our communities, our land and our country.