June 26, 2024

Paving an inclusive path: Haskayne's first Indigenous business PhD student on a journey to build a better tomorrow

Mick Elliott’s inspiring journey at Haskayne and his vision for representation
A man with a dog
Haskayne’s inaugural PhD student, Mick Elliott, and his service animal, Tulip. Victoria Pizarro, for Haskayne School of Business

June marks National Indigenous History Month, a time to honour and commemorate the rich tapestry of culture, heritage, achievements and history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Amidst this celebration, the Haskayne School of Business is shining a spotlight on a student who is setting an example for the business leaders of tomorrow.

As Haskayne’s inaugural Indigenous business PhD student, Mick Elliott’s journey at Haskayne is not just about personal achievement, but a beacon for Indigenous representation and empowerment in the world of business, academia and beyond.

On a lifelong journey

After completing his MBA in 2021, Elliott remained determined on his knowledge journey for lifelong learning, and he soon took an interest in pursuing academia after one of his professors and respected Elder at Simon Fraser University, Dr. John Borrows, PhD, urged him, “With your business acumen, you need to do your business PhD.” 

After connecting with his friends, family, Elders and community about this idea, Elliott learned that there are less than 10 Indigenous business PhDs in all of Canada. This fact fuelled his desire to obtain his PhD and reinforce a foundation of empowerment and representation for other aspiring Indigenous business leaders and scholars. 

“I understand the wisdom and the need for me, and others like me, to pursue a business PhD,” says Elliott, who is part of the future graduating Class of 2027.

By pursuing his PhD and excelling in his professional journey, Elliott aims to address the socioeconomic divide that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Inspired by the gifts shared with him throughout his career in the oil and gas energy sector, he seeks to find ways to Indigenize businesses and business schools to support self-determination and reconciliation — or, as Elliott calls it, “reconcili-ACTION” — by, with and for Indigenous Peoples.

Beyond academia, Elliott volunteers as an industry board member for Simon Fraser’s Sustainable Energy Engineering School and with a number of Indigenous Nations, including his own Okanese First Nation, to support Indigenization, decolonization and self-determination efforts. He is also passionate to facilitate Indigenous awareness sessions, where he shares his experiences to foster understanding and advocacy between those eager to learn and those more hesitant. These sessions serve as a platform to bridge the gap in knowledge and promote healthy and safe conversations on Indigenous issues while acknowledging the systemic challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples.

“The majority of Canada’s population doesn’t understand why things are the way they are — Indigenous peoples included,” says Elliott. “I try to tell a story that creates advocacy and awareness that motivates others to be a part of the change we need to see in the spaces around us. We are collectively collaborating on a better path forward, which is making space for all, including Indigenous Peoples.”

A man wearing sunglasses

Haskayne PhD student, Mick Elliott, on the first day of his PhD journey in 2023.

Photo provided by Mick Elliott.

The path to academia is both rewarding and challenging 

Elliott describes his experience at Haskayne so far as "mixed," reflecting on the dichotomy of being in classrooms surrounded by brilliant minds filled with thought-provoking discussion, yet feeling the absence of Indigenous perspectives. 

“Coming from a corporate life, I assumed that business schools would be further along in their inclusion work than our energy sector, but, in many ways, the academy is further behind,” he says, adding the lack of Indigenous voices in the university leaves him “feeling like a foreigner within my own Nation.” 

Despite this, he is passionate about utilizing his seasoned background and wisdom to bring unique perspectives to discussions and challenge mainstream knowledge with his Indigenous world view. He also credits his cohort for embracing diversity and welcoming the differences that make them all experts in their field. 

“My PhD cohorts are fantastic, and, since they are almost exclusively foreign researchers, it creates an interesting connection of feeling like we are all a little foreign,” says Elliott.

One of Elliott's significant achievements during his time at Haskayne is securing the prestigious The Canada Graduate Scholarships—Doctoral (CGS-D) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (super SSHRC), ranking sixth nationally for his proposal, “Reform(att)ing Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples and their Economies.” This recognition also allowed him to overcome his feelings of self-doubt and “imposter syndrome” — when one doesn’t feel like they belong — by validating his expertise and highlighting the importance of his role in shaping societal discourse. 

“For many years, I was ashamed of my diversity, but I now recognize that diversity is a strength that leads to innovation and change,” says Elliott. “Embrace and welcome the diversity around you.”

A man stands in front of a presentation

Mick Elliott presenting at an Indspire youth conference.

Photo provided by Mick Elliott

Relationships are everything

Rooted in his Indigenous culture, Elliott is heavily guided by the principle of relationships. 

“Everything is about relationships: our relationship with one another; our relationship to our environments; our relationship with ourselves,” says Elliot. “Engaging in respectful, responsible, reciprocal relationships with everything around us is a teaching I have been gifted, and it grounds me.

“As a two-spirited individual, I also value and respect that we have a responsibility to figure out how best we contribute to the system around us and it has a reciprocal responsibility to support us on that journey.”

With the lack of Indigenous representation on campuses, Elliott acknowledges the hurdles faced by Indigenous students and professionals — from tokenism to systemic racism and institutional discrimination.

“Being the first at anything brings a lot of pressure and additional challenge to perform and break trail for those who will follow,” says Elliot. “While I feel it is important to have a visible presence, those of us who demand more encounter tensions when eradicating barriers or encountering stigmas.

“To look around boardroom tables or classrooms and not see Indigenous Peoples represented is something that must change, and pressing for that change doesn’t have to happen alone. If you’re Indigenous, reach for your culture and wrap yourself in it like a nurturing, warm blanket.”

Although the journey is not easy and requires a thick skin, Elliott advises aspiring Indigenous students pursuing careers in business or graduate studies to take advantage of the support systems and large network of allies on their side.

“You do not have to do this work on your own and the journey can create horizons of opportunity for yourself and others who follow you,” he says.

“Change from within is always easiest and, when we sit around boardroom tables or in classrooms, our perspectives can find the hearts and minds of people who are waiting for you to help get to a better place. The systems themselves will be irritating and set in their ways, but having the patience and taking the time to learn them so that you can begin to change the system is critical."

A Call to Reconcili-ACTION

As Haskayne's first Indigenous PhD student, Elliott is calling for tangible action in fostering equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigenization efforts at Haskayne. He stresses the importance of using our voices and positions of privilege to dismantle the imperialistic status quo and create a safe space for marginalized voices in our community.

“Diversification and Indigenization (are verbs) and require action,” says Elliott. “If you’re not actively doing something to support Equity, Diversity, Indigeneity, Inclusion and Accessibility (EDIIA), you are part of the problem. All too often the work of creating space for all lands on the shoulders of those who are underrepresented or marginalized.”

As we celebrate National Indigenous History Month, Elliott's commitment to building a better tomorrow serves as a reminder for us to take responsibility in both acknowledging the past and actively working towards a future where Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are valued and integrated into all aspects of society. 

Discover how you can take the first step towards reconcili-ACTION by registering for URise Indigenous training and learn more about UCalgary’s Office of Indigenous Engagement and teaching resources here.

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