Joanne Speakman, a longtime Yellowknife resident, holds a peregrine falcon that a wildlife biologist brought into one of her classes at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Speakman is working toward a degree in conservation biology and she’s pondering a masters in public health. photo courtesy of Joanne Speakman

Post-secondary learning hasn’t been a straight path for sisters Joanne and Louise Speakman, but they’re persisting and continuing to achieve academically.

After graduating from Sir John Franklin High School in 2008, Joanne spent two years at Aurora College night school upgrading her marks while working during the day.

From there it was on to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton (NAIT), where she enrolled in biological sciences and renewable resources.

She was later accepted at the University of Alberta (U of A) and transferred her credits. Although she thoroughly enjoys the hands-on learning in the conservation biology degree program, she struggled with a calculus course. However, she hired a tutor and persevered.

“I learned that big time, the importance of asking for help,” she said. “There’s always so many resources if you look for them.”

The Indigenous student council on the U of A campus has been extremely helpful in offering guidance and networking, she added.

Joanne also chose to reduce her university course load to four classes per semester instead of five.

“Take as long as you need … I have to take an extra semester but it’s totally been worth it,” she said. “As long as you keep going, it sounds cliche, but anything is possible.”

Louise Speakman attained her social work diploma last April. She’s now pursuing her social work degree at Grand MacEwan University in Edmonton. photo courtesy of Louise Speakman

For Louise, the younger sister by two years and also a Sir John grad, it was really difficult to leave Yellowknife for post-secondary school in the south.

“I was terrified to come to Edmonton,” she recalled. “I totally get it when people don’t want to leave because basically everything’s in Yellowknife.”

She enrolled at NAIT but then withdrew at the last minute due to her anxiety. She overcame her fear the following year and earned her red seal in baking.

She moved on to social work, got her diploma and now is in the degree program at Grant MacEwan University.

“I’ve met so many people at school so it’s been really good so far,” she said, adding that she and her sister are able to get together at times.
Louise credits her childhood experience in Deline and her mother, Marie, for sparking her interest in social work.

“I think it was growing up in a really small community and seeing the effects of inter-generational trauma on everyone,” she said. “And my mom is a victims services worker in Yellowknife. I’ve always looked up to my mom … she helps a lot of people.”

Long-term, Louise said she’d like to work with Indigenous women and youth in the criminal justice system.

“Indigenous women are way too big of a percentage of women in jail,” she said. “That’s a big interest of mine.”

For Joanne, it was her dad, David, a recently retired school teacher, who helped propel her to greater academic heights.

“He always pushed us to do our best, like a drive to have the best opportunities possible,” she said.

After hopefully working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in British Columbia this summer, she’ll return to the U of A in the fall to complete her last three courses and earn her conservation biology degree by December. The learning likely won’t stop there, however.

“I’m finding I’m more and more interested in public health. So I think I’m going to be applying for grad school and looking into public health programs,” she said. “I’m really passionate about improving health care for Indigenous people, especially in Northern communities. They’re lacking a lot of resources and I think it would be really awesome to have a career focused on improving those systems.”

Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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