Joseph Tootoosis: All roads lead home

Joseph Tootoosis (BA’13) has seen a lot of highway in his 31 years.

By John Grainger

The wind-swept desert tracks of the Middle East to the rain-slicked roads of the West Coast and the gravel highways across the Canadian Prairies have all led Tootoosis to where he is today—back home.

In November 2020, Tootoosis was hired to handle communications and marketing for the Saskatchewan Indigenous Economic Development Network in Saskatoon (SIEDN). However, getting to this point has been quite the journey for Tootoosis, something he can appreciate now looking back on his travels and travails.

“A lot of the time, going through adversity, personally or family-wise, you realize later how well you’ve done, and sometimes under extreme duress,” said Tootoosis. “Now, I’m blessed to be in this part of my life and to be where I am.”

As a youngster growing up in suburban Saskatoon, Tootoosis proved to be a skilled athlete who climbed the ranks to play in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League with the Beardy’s Blackhawks program, which was one of a kind in Canada for Indigenous hockey players.

Tootoosis always dreamed big and recalls writing on the back of a hockey card from one of his youth teams that he wanted to be a lawyer, just like his dad, Jacob Howard Tootootsis. He did make it to law school, but swerved into the business path just after entering the University of British Columbia (UBC). Getting to that point, however, was not on a straight line.

Once he finished high school, he enrolled at USask, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience, especially when his dad passed away in 2009.

“At that time, I knew that hockey would have to go on the back-burner,” he recalls. “I attempted to go to university to begin my undergraduate studies because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time.”

However, the challenges he faced were difficult to handle and he had to withdraw from university. His academic adviser made sure he left the door open to returning to get his degree.

“It just proved too much for me. I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t think I’d be back.”

At 19, he left for British Columbia’s Fraser Valley for a spell, then found himself going to Fort McMurray in northern Alberta where he started training as an electrician in the oil sands.

“I wandered around Western Canada and saw a lot of the country, but I also spent a lot of time reflecting on how things had gone and what lay before me because it looked very uncertain.”

Tootoosis found himself going back to Flying Dust First Nation, near Meadow Lake, Sask., and got a job pumping gas.

“That sure taught me a lot because people don’t treat you very well at all,” he said.

His mom and grandparents urged Tootoosis to give school another shot, so he saved his money, re-applied to USask and was accepted. That was when his academic career really took off. He studied hard, won academic awards and received an invitation from Indspire to speak about his journey to policy makers and other younger students. That turned a light on for Tootoosis. He realized his initial goal of law school was not far from reach.

After graduating with distinction from USask with a political science degree, Tootoosis wrote his law school admittance test and passed, and began preparing to attend UBC law in 2014.

It looked like Tootoosis’ life was finally getting back on track until he suffered a concussion playing intramural hockey.

Another setback. Doctors eventually recommended he take a year off to recover from post-concussion syndrome. He found himself travelling and reconnecting with family in the Northwest Territories before returning to take a job back home at Flying Dust as a community planner and governance officer.

His concussion and rehabilitation period were signs for Tootoosis that law school may not be the road to take after all. A friend and mentor, Chief Chris Derrickson of Westbank First Nation, recommended he think about a change to the MBA program at Simon Fraser University’s Segal Graduate School of Business, with a specialization in Indigenous Business Leadership.

That fork in the road proved to be a good decision for Tootoosis. At 27, he was accepted into the program, the youngest person ever admitted. He caught the attention of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa who brought him to Ottawa as a policy analyst in 2018. This was done while still handling a full class load for his MBA.

Soon, he was selected by the national chief to participate as a member of the Canadian delegation for the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity to visit Egypt where he had a chance to experience different cultures and represent Canada and Indigenous Peoples in North America on the world stage.

He’s been able to parlay his experiences into his current role back in Saskatchewan with SIEDN, after seven years of being away from Saskatoon.

“There are a lot of functions in this role that are closer to things I would do as a policy analystdoing stakeholder analysis within the province and see what the economic and political landscapes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations look like.”

Tootoosis isn’t quite sure what is next, but does not fear where the next road might lead him.