Alumni Profile

Shawnigan Change-Maker Alumni Interview: Lisa Jane De Gara ’10

Lisa Jane De Gara ’10 (Strathcona) sat down (virtually) with Rhodri Samuel and Harriet Klumper ’09 (Renfrew) as part of an ongoing series featuring the stories that make up the legacy of Shawnigan alumni. As our selected Change-Maker Alumni feature, LJ shared her experiences since graduating from Shawnigan which have included studying political science and public policy at McGill University and the University of Saskatchewan respectively, and a career working with government institutions, playing a key role as part of a COVID response effort, and leading a team that provides supports to immigrants and refugees in Northern Alberta communities.

HK: What was your favourite memory of Shawnigan?

LJDG: You know I enjoyed reflecting on this question, and it was difficult because there are a lot of things that were wonderful. I kept thinking about all of the nonsense hanging around in Strathcona, all of the Grade 11 and Grade 12 girls gathered at the end of the hallway having ridiculous dance parties or just spending time together. All of the times that we spent hanging around as prefects trying to demonstrate our authority – such as it was – was a lot of fun and very silly. I also think the year-end talent shows that we did were wonderful. Of course I would be remiss not to mention all of the time spent in Model UN, which was also just spectacular, such a lot of fun.
HK: I feel like Model UN is a bit of a sleeper agent Fine Art. If you’re not involved in it as a student, you only kind of hear about the MUN trips, but when we talk to our alumni it seems to hold a longevity in terms of people’s experiences. People seem to be really profoundly affected by it.

LJDG: It’s wonderful, it really is. It gives you a good sense of how to navigate meaningfully in the world with a team, and it’s a lot of fun. I was reflecting about when we had the opportunity to go to California in 2010 and it was fantastic. It was a really meaningful experience and I can still very vividly remember that trip and a lot of the other trips that we had as a group. Mr. Klassen does great work!

Lisa (back row, second from left) with the 2009-2010 Model UN group.

HK: I think that, as a student in my day, looking from the outside I just conflated debate and Model UN because of the overlap in terms of skill set but there’s so much more to Model UN that I just didn’t realize.

LJDG: The skills are very similar, though debate feels different. It’s much more intensely competitive. Whereas Model UN you don’t have that experience. You remember forging resolutions with kids not just from other schools but sometimes even from other countries. I think that kind of cooperation and collaboration is in many ways much more informative of career work going forward, than that sort of loggerheads.

HK: Who was your most influential teacher at Shawnigan and why?

LJDG: Well it’ll have to be a tie, in the interest of fairness, but I would say absolutely Mr. Klassen and Señora Carballo were incredibly influential. They were just such passionate people with a global eye, and always funny. The two of them, I think they were such influential leaders, they had a really unique and spectacular view on the world that I so appreciated and that I still believe myself to be influenced by to this day. I got to email with them not that long ago and I’m glad to know that they’re still there and that they’re still doing incredible things for the School.

HK: In what ways did your Shawnigan experience shape your life after and how did your career lead to where you are now?

LJDG: After I graduated I went to McGill University where I pursued my B.A. in Political Science. When I finished my degree at McGill I started applying for different graduate schools and ended up going to the University of Saskatchewan’s Master of Public Administration program immediately upon graduation in 2014.

Lisa in the Shawnigan yearbook as “Most likely to end up working in politics,” 2010.

I owe a tremendous amount to the University of Saskatchewan and the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. I graduated from there in 2016, and they gave me my first long-term job. I worked in the government of Saskatchewan for eight months in the Ministry of Education, which was a really important experience. We were there during a dark moment, when there was a school shooting in La Loche Saskatchewan in early 2016; to see how government institutions cope with crises.

After that I was employed by the government of Alberta as a policy analyst in a variety of progressively responsible roles from 2016 to 2020. I think when people think about policy and they think about this sort of applied political science and strategy in government, often their affection is for a particular field. So they’d really like to talk about environmental policy, or they’d really like to talk about health policy. For me, I always try to take the approach of it’s about the act and the work, not so much about the subject. If you can have passion for the skill set, then number one you’ll always have something to do, and number two you’ll never be bored.

Lisa standing in front of what would be the Muriel Stanley Venne Provincial Centre, 2017.

I worked in strategic policy of infrastructure in Alberta and spent a lot of time talking about what we should name buildings and what we shouldn’t name buildings. There is one building in this province to which I gave a name, so if you’re ever in North Edmonton you can see the Muriel Stanley Venne Provincial Centre, which is not a very impressive building from the outside, but we were able to name that after Muriel Stanley Venne who is a Metis activist. So that was quite an exciting feather in my cap.

In 2021, I took up a job as Manager for Action for Healthy Communities, which is an immigration and settlement centre. Our headquarters are here in Edmonton where I live and we support immigrants and refugees coming into small communities throughout Alberta. Historically, almost all immigration in Canada has happened into our two biggest cities; Toronto and Vancouver account for about 70 percent of all immigration. Yet there’s this feeling that we want to have immigration into smaller communities throughout the country, not just comparably sized cities like Edmonton and Calgary, but smaller communities of 100,000, 50,000 or 30,000 people, and where are the supports needed for people to be effective in that? 

To use the Model UN example, it’s been a really great opportunity to use some of those diplomacy skills because a little bit of the work that I do feels like: “Hello, I’ve come from the city and I’m bringing immigrants!” Which is often not warmly received in our small rural communities.

So how do we make immigration not only palatable, but appear as a net asset – which I truly believe it is – to people living in our small communities throughout this country. I say to my team a lot, “You have to build your airplane as you fly it.” That’s very much the type of work that we’re doing. But it has been so fulfilling, and I’ve really been very fortunate to be in this role.

Lisa presenting research at the Japanese Economic Policy Association Conference
in Chuo, Japan, November 2019.
HK: I think as the conversation progresses I’m just getting a sense of the scope of your work. You’re talking about liaising with access to crisis services, you’re talking about healthcare access, school access, setting up Zoom calls. I can’t imagine this is an eight to four o’clock, punch-my-card-and-walk-away, job.

LJDG: What’s working hours? I think on health care, there’s a story I feel quite proud of. One of the communities that we serve has no physicians currently accepting new patients. Not a single one. We went through all the conventional modes of trying to seek support but unfortunately in rural Alberta right now there just are not enough doctors and there’s not a lot we can do.

You know maybe I could credit my time at Shawnigan, I said I’m not gonna take that no for an answer, I don’t think that’s acceptable, I’m gonna continue to push. So I reached out to one of our independent providers, and I said, I know you’ve been able to deliver vaccines to newcomers – are you able to do other family medicine? Would you like to drive down for the day just to do a family medicine clinic? Much to my delight, she agreed.
In January when it was freezing, we all made the journey down to the community and we had a full family medicine clinic with I think 20 full patients. People were calling up their friends and saying, “Come on you’ve got to come down here and see the doctor!” It was a really tremendous success and such an exciting thing to have the doctor come out to one of these rural communities and do a full day’s worth of clinic work with some of our newcomer clients who had been so consistently not able to access medical services in a regular way.

HK: That’s absolutely fantastic. That kind of ties in nicely into some of the work that I know you were involved in after the start of the pandemic. I’d love for you to share how that came about.
LJDG: So, essentially in 2021 Alberta had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Canada, and we’ve been the home of some pretty unfortunate events. I think the two largest single outbreaks of COVID-19 infection in North America were at meat packing plants just south of Edmonton. 

There was a collective of 13 agencies, including my own, that were providing social services for all manner of different community groups, including immigrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, and people experiencing homelessness, and they gathered together and they formed something called the Edmonton COVID-19 Rapid Response Collaborative (ECRRC). When they first began, a lot of it was providing support to people in need who were experiencing COVID-19. Getting groceries brought to their door if they were in isolation, getting access to health care, providing people with small financial supplements if they weren’t able to go to work, etc.

Lisa speaking to MP Blake Desjarlais at a vaccine event, August 2021.

The collaborative was very successful for a number of months and as this was occurring, I was watching with rapt attention as the vaccine was being prepared and released. Beginning in May 2021, when the Government of Alberta released vaccines for anyone over 12, we said, “We need to go above and beyond.” The reality is, we know that there is often vaccine hesitancy in newcomer communities, and we know that people who are experiencing poverty may experience struggles accessing vaccines. 

As part of ECRRC, I became the Vaccine Chair, and we started working on all the levels that we could: let’s talk to doctors who speak different first languages – who come from different ethnocultural communities – and ask them to help us get the message out; it has to come directly from people who are trusted, who have some cultural caché, and have some meaning in these communities. So we did some work with the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association (AIMGA), we did some work with Alberta Health Services getting vaccine clinics going, and we worked with the doctor that I mentioned from Canada Home Care Group. It was this push to bring the vaccines to where people are. We know this has worked effectively almost everywhere in the world. It’s not that you put the vaccines in some distant location and hope for the best, it’s that you put the vaccines in the parking lot and you bring people there.

We had BBQs, gift basket giveaways, and people walking by on the street. It was a combination of outreach work and vaccine clinic work that we continued until December 2021 when the ECRRC was ultimately wound down. It was a remarkable thing to be able to do. At the insistence of the Government of Alberta, we did another campaign over June–July 2022, so our total vaccine number is now 850.
It has been truly incredible work. I was really only a very small part of it because we had people on the street that were speaking all these different languages and distributing different materials, but it was a great thing to be part of and I’m very thankful.

Lisa on CBC Newsroom discussing work with the ECRRC, October 2021.
HK: In just looking through some of the volunteer work you’ve done I noticed a through line – the promotion of women – and I don’t know if you would be comfortable speaking to that?

LJDG: Absolutely. I think it’s a really important thing to talk about: the work in supporting women both here and throughout the world. One of the things we flag in all of these considerations of settlement, international development, and success is that there is no country that succeeds without its women succeeding. Actually, if you look at the statistical analysis of it, one of the most interesting things to flag is that the single greatest predictor of a country’s success is its willingness and its commitment to the education of women and girls. You can almost draw a perfect straight line. You can do a lot of other things right, but if you don’t have that commitment to the success of women and girls, the rest of the society simply does not succeed. In the work that we do we support all newcomers, but I think it’s been very noteworthy to emphasize that we do support a lot of newcomer women who have had significant struggles during their time in Canada whether that’s with poverty, domestic violence, supporting children, or supporting family members with disabilities.

HK: So we usually ask a question along the lines of: what is an action anyone can take to support this initiative. It’s not always a charity that you donate to, or something you would volunteer to sign up with, but in your case if you think about it both from the perspective of people that are in Edmonton and then people on a global scale, how could they support what it is that you’re passionate about? 

LJDG: That’s a wonderful question, and actually I do have an answer for that, which is: I love the internet, I’m obsessed with the internet, I’m on the internet all the time; but your best and most significant work will not happen on the internet. If your commitment to a movement and a moment is predicated predominantly on the internet: go outside, be in the streets wherever it is that you are, because I guarantee you that there’s a place, there’s a group of people, there’s an organization, who are doing something related to what you believe and what you’d like to pursue. The more that you’re out in person and rubbing elbows with people, the more effective you’re able to be, and the better you’re able to understand.

I would say that you should believe whatever it is that you really believe with your heart, and I want to see you out there in the world with me. You know all of the craziest conversations I’ve had in this work have occurred in parking lots…  So I guess my advice is, be in parking lots! 

Lisa and the Action for Healthy Communities team set up in a parking lot, 2021.

Update: In November of 2022 Lisa received the Alberta School Board Association’s “Friends of Education” award for her work with Action for Healthy Communities.

The interview featured in this article has been shortened for clarity and brevity.
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