ERIK MANDAWE - Child & Youth Mental Health and Addictions Worker

Erik Mandawe

Child & Youth Mental Health and Addictions Worker, Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC)

I’m the team coordinator for seven different First Nations Communities in Southwestern Ontario. We work as a team in program development related to cultural identity and its relationship to resiliency.

Do you self-identify as First Nation, Métis, or Inuit? If yes, with what community do you affiliate?

I am First Nations from Beaver Lake Cree Nation. I am Cree, but I was raised in Toronto, where there are multiple influences on First Nation identity. I know mostly Anishinaabe traditions.

What is a typical day like for you?

Most days I get up in the morning and drive A LOT! Some days it’s around 3 hours; we drive to work with the youth within their communities. We provide programming for all youth, ages 10-18, in their schools or somewhere out in the community. I also spend a fair amount of time on the computer, coordinating and corresponding through email. There is a good amount of preparation work that needs to be done some days, but it’s nice to do that with your co-workers as it gives you time to catch up.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

The most enjoyable part of my job by far is working with the youth and the people in the communities. I see a lot of myself in the youth, though I grew up in an urban area. It is really different growing up in Toronto than it is in the rural communities, but there are still a lot of similarities when it comes to coming into your own and developing your identity.

What is the least enjoyable part of your job?

The coordinating can be a struggle; sending emails or making phone calls and waiting for a response before you can make any decisions. We have stepped away from the blanket approach of treating all communities the same by focusing on individual needs. It can be really difficult coordinating because each community is so unique. But this is where the challenge is, and the reward factor is high. I sleep very well at night!

Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).

When I was in high school, I was not a university bound student. I thought I would graduate, get a job, and buy a truck… But when I was in grade 11, I participated in a university mentorship program offered by the University of Toronto. This really opened my eyes to the possibilities in a university education, so I applied and was accepted to U of T for archaeology. I had an amazing opportunity to spend four months in Siberia as part of an archaeological team. This world experience was really critical in helping me to develop my identity; it also helped me to become very resourceful. This opportunity also exposed me to a new field of study called medical anthropology and so I changed my major when I returned to Toronto. Biomedical anthropology incorporates biology with anthropology, and puts everything into a cultural context. It has a strong focus in statistics and demographics. I finished university with an Honours Bachelor of Science. I started working in the community and at the museum. I developed a passion for education and working with youth. When I saw the job posting for my current position, I took a chance and just went for it. It was a chance for me to combine my academic background with my passion for working with youth. It ended up being a great opportunity, and I have never felt more driven towards my career goals.

Did you experience any obstacles or challenges on your path? How did you overcome these obstacles or challenges?

It was very difficult financially. It was hard working while I was going to school. Knowing it was only four years made it easier; it wouldn’t be something I would always have to do. Being so busy all the time might have actually helped me. It forced me to have my priorities straight and make sure I scheduled my time well. I also applied for many scholarships and bursaries. I received a NAAF (National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation) scholarship and a few other bursaries and that definitely helped.

Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?

Mom. I’ll be cheesy and say mom, but it’s true. She is one of the strongest and smartest people I know. She always made sacrifices for me and my brother to make sure we had everything we needed. She also works in community wellness. She has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and works in diabetes prevention, education, counselling and family support. We have similar interests, she is also very artistic.

What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?

I would suggest to others that you be involved in your community. Volunteer when you can; it really helps you to gain not only experience, but perspective as well. While you’re in school, get to know your professors. They will gain an interest in you and it can open up so many doors. I would have never had the opportunity to go to Siberia if I had just been a student number and not ‘Erik’ to my professor. It can really help you to find where your interests lie and what kind of opportunities are out there for you. I would also suggest that you always keep busy. Make sure you plan your weeks and your months out. Make goals and stick to them, it will only help you in the long run. I like to refer to my 1-year plan, 5-year, 10-year, etc.

How does your job make a difference?

I grew up in a not-so-great area in Toronto. I knew I was First Nations, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t have the opportunity to develop my identity in the school setting because there weren’t any other First Nations people besides my brother. If you don’t know who you are or where you come from it can be really difficult growing up in such a multicultural atmosphere. It is getting better in schools now from what I can see. I think my job makes a difference because I know what the struggle looks like. I get a chance to try to help these youth develop their identity in a healthy and positive way – something that I did not have an opportunity to do when I was in school. It is always an amazing feeling when you are being the change you would like to see in the world. In my case, because I wanted to learn my culture and identity within the school, I am now able to teach young people of the authentic First Nations identity.

How do you use science, math and technology in your job?

Having a degree in medical anthropology has really prepared me well to take an integrative approach to developing health and wellness. We are combining an evidence based Western approach with the traditional knowledge and teachings from the communities. Knowing human physiology and the stages in human development really helps me when I am researching the literature. Not to mention understanding the direct link between culture and one’s interpretation of the world around them.

Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?

I wish I had gone all the way through school taking drama. I have been a part time movie actor since I was seven years old. I’ve had a small part in a B-movie called Maximum Risk with Jean-Claude Van Damme, a few recurring background roles on Degrassi, and a couple of music videos. I wish I had more acting experience, and I would have liked to learn how to develop different personalities. Someday this might be something for me to return to.

What makes this job right for you?

This job incorporates all my passions: education, community-based initiatives, working with youth, traditional knowledge. I’ve heard that a First Nations person is drawn to work in their community; I’m not saying that is true for everyone, but it definitely is for me. I feel so strongly that our traditions are a finite resource and that we need to take the time to learn and use them. A finite resource is something we can lose if we don’t take care to pass them on through the generations as we once did.

What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?

Once we were doing a workshop at a school in a community and we were heading out to a local restaurant for lunch. We were following another co-worker’s car because I had no idea where we were going. We lost her and didn’t realize it and ended up following the wrong car down these back roads to this sketchy-looking trailer. These really big guys got out of the car and didn’t seem very impressed at all that we were following them! They ended being really nice and helped us to get back to the restaurant.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

I read a lot, fiction and non-fiction. I also write, I wouldn’t call it poetry, but I write down what I’m thinking when my mind goes a mile-a-minute. I’m also a musician; I play guitar, drums, keyboard, and sometimes I sing. I have a little studio and I’ve played in a few bands. I like to go to open-mike nights. One day I would like to take this more seriously. I try to keep fit; I like to play sports.

You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?

I would buy my mom a new house, if she wanted one. I would make sure she is set. I would make sure all our debt is paid off. The tar-sands are a big issue back home in Beaver Lake so I would want to make sure I could help out with that cause. It is the first and largest federal case that is dealing with First Nations treaty rights and the environment. I would also like to start an Urban Youth Identity Program for urban First Nations youth. Finally, I would treat myself to some new instruments and awesome new equipment for my studio.

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