The student becomes the teacher

A portrait of a young Indigenous woman. The woman is wearing a black sweater and beaded earrings. She is smiling brightly with her arms crossed.

Sitting in her apartment in Thunder Bay, Ont., Jacey Bonertz recently started her work term through Suncor’s Indigenous Student Program. Jacey is working with the Asset Integrity Team, which ensures pipelines are functioning safely and as they should, until the end of August as part of her studies with Lakehead University.

This is Jacey’s third work term within the Indigenous Student Program. Her first placement was in 2018 when she was placed in Fort McMurray as an engineering diploma student.

“I was terrified to say the least about coming into my role with Suncor for so many reasons,” explains Jacey. “I worried I wasn’t Indigenous enough for the Indigenous Student Program, I didn’t feel smart enough to be an engineer and I was worried about being in a new town where I didn’t know anyone.”

Jacey’s worries were soon gone when she met other students in the program. They developed a hard and fast bond over shared experiences and worries. 

“That 2018 placement was a turning point for me and my identity,” says Jacey. “It was the first time my feelings were validated. I really felt like I wasn’t alone. I ended up making my best friends that summer, all through the Indigenous Student Program.”

Born and raised in Pincher Creek, Alta., Jacey is a member of the Piikani Nation—part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Southern Alberta. While she grew up near the reserve and spent time there, she says she wasn’t really connected to her culture.

Her Indigenous roots stem from her maternal grandfather, who was a residential school survivor and passed away long before Jacey was born. As a result, Jacey didn’t receive the traditional knowledge her grandfather would have passed down to her. And when Jacey’s own father passed away when she was young, she clung to his non-Indigenous side of the family.

In addition to a segmented family, Jacey was met with doubt when she self-identified as Indigneous. Throughout school, she experienced hostility about her Indigenous roots, which made a profound impact on Jacey’s confidence. 

“I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome, I didn’t really feel like I belonged.” 

Today, Jacey is very open about her Indigenous roots. She credits a lot of this change to the friends she made in the Indigenous Student Program. “Meeting those friends is what really started my journey,” says Jacey. “Having that validation made me look at why I was feeling the way I was feeling and identifying where those feelings were coming from.”

Jacey also says the program is the reason she went back to school after graduating from SAIT.

“Working for Suncor is what pushed me to go back to get my degree,” adds Jacey. “The program helped me discover my full potential as an engineer.”

For National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, some of the students in the Indigenous Student Program will be speaking about their experiences and what reconciliation means to them on a panel for Suncor employees. 

Although Jacey isn’t on the panel this year, she has participated in the past, despite still feeling nervous about speaking about her Indigenous lineage.

“My biggest insecurity has always been my lack of knowledge about my culture,” admits Jacey. “But, I realized that the only way to overcome that is to put myself out there, to try to learn and gain more knowledge.”

Jacey’s courage to put herself out there isn’t something reserved for only Indigenous Peoples. Part of Suncor’s Journey of Reconciliation asks all of Suncor’s workforce to learn more about Indigenous history and culture. Jacey may be the student, but we all stand to learn from her.