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Shyla O’Donnell is optimistic about Indigenous rights and culture and a sustainable future for Canadians

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on May 18, 2022

Category: UNB Fredericton , Inspiring Stories


Unity. It’s what Shyla O’Donnell (BScF’07) is most proud of.

For five years she worked to create and lead The Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, a non-profit organization formed in 2017 to help coordinate and provide technical support and consultatory advice to the Wolastoqey Communities of New Brunswick on matters that relate to Wolastoqey constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

“The organization was formed to bring unity to the six Wolastoqey communities by providing technical advice to Chiefs and communities on topics the Chiefs want to unite on. We did a huge amount of community engagement to understand how to build an organization that could bring people together through effective, targeted communication and be able to fully participate in government processes. We assembled a team with the ability to process highly technical information and engage on various issues of concern. We essentially created a unity office, and with so many other issues separately facing Chiefs and Councils, it was crucially needed. We’ve been able to accomplish it by working together, and it’s a huge win.”

Shyla says it took moving around in various roles, traveling the world and living in different parts of the country to understand her passion and find the right place to make a difference.
She had originally enrolled in the Science/Kinesiology program at UNB before deciding it wasn’t for her and transferring to Forestry and Environmental Management. During her studies, she worked for a summer on biodiversity research in protected natural areas of the province. It re-ignited her passion for being outside in nature. She had grown up in Boiestown and spent a lot of time in the woods, and her Indigenous background instinctually connected her with the Earth. She spent subsequent summers traveling to work on different projects: entomology research on Vancouver Island, climate change research in Newfoundland, and forestry management in Port McNeil, British Columbia. She also travelled to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, took up boxing and ran triathlons. “I wanted to move around and explore what this country and world had to offer. It helped me build my confidence and find what excited me.”

After she graduated, she was hired by the Province of New Brunswick as a forestry intern and worked toward a Registered Professional Forester designation. She was able to move around with different departments and regions of the province and after two years landed in the Aboriginal Affairs department. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot, including that we need to change forest management in the province to better incorporate Indigenous forest rights. Unfortunately, there was not enough political will or resources at that time to make it happen. There just wasn’t enough movement in government for what I wanted to accomplish. But I came away with great relationships that have helped me with the work I’ve done and continue to do.”

Shyla stepped away from government to work with St. Mary’s First Nation in Fredericton and began a project to work with the Six Nations on building consultation capacity. “It became evident to me that the constitutional duty to consult and accommodate was not being meaningfully implemented in New Brunswick.” Along with the Chiefs and others in the communities, she formed The Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick (WNNB), which accelerated quickly. “I spent a lot of time during the growth phase on change management, engaging people in the communities, and hiring. We grew a stellar team of advisors, lawyers, scientists, environmentalists, historians, financial experts, Wolastoqey youth and Elders. We built huge capacity to be able to work well in unison. This accomplishment was done as a team – with the Chiefs, staff, Elders and many in the communities coming together.

Recently, Shyla’s taken on a full-time role as Operations Lead for SOAR Professional Services, an Indigenous-owned and operated company.  Along with founder Ryan Dunbar (BScCE’03, MScCE’09), the team at SOAR is building capacity and taking on innovative projects across the country focused on reconciliation – with Shyla operating out of Victoria, British Columbia.

“I’m working on building our business in B.C. and specifically taking on projects focused on reconciliACTION. I’m not interested in talking about reconciliation any longer. What we need now is action.”

Shyla admits that her work can be challenging at times, especially while raising two young daughters. “There is so much work behind the scenes at a bureaucratic level. But I’m learning so much being here – in a province that’s further ahead on Indigenous rights than New Brunswick is. I hope to keep close ties with N.B. and bring back knowledge gained from seeing what’s working here.”

Despite the challenges, Shyla continues to advocate for forest stewardship and Indigenous rights. She remains hopeful that we’re moving closer to a green economy and zero-emissions world, and one which is moving further along with solving major social issues that exist.

“I hope my daughters live in a world that’s more respectful of Earth and of each other. I hope they have access to Wolastoqey language programs and feel a massive amount of pride for their Indigenous heritage. I have a long-term vision of where New Brunswick and Canada can get to, and I choose to remain hopeful that will be accomplished.”