“My passion is advocacy for Indigenous organizations and making a better life for the people of the North,” says graduating School of Public Health student Crystal Lennie, ‘23 MPH

Completing a master’s degree after dropping out of high school in Grade 9, Lennie is inspiring the youth in her community to further their education.

Shirley Wilfong-Pritchard - 09 June 2023

Crystal Lennie half-jokes that she hopes to be deputy minister of health for the Northwest Territories one day. Getting a master’s degree seemed like a good idea to advance that dream. Lennie will be graduating this June with a master of public health (MPH) specializing in health promotion from the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. But she had to overcome some obstacles along the way.

Lennie lives and grew up in Inuvik — the largest Northwest Territories town north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of 3,243 — where the road to higher education didn’t start out easy. Lennie dropped out of high school in Grade 9. Of the roughly 60 students who started kindergarten together, only seven graduated high school — the smallest graduating class in recent memory. 

Lennie’s interest in health care began at 16, when she worked at the local hospital for two years in security, administration, finance and human resources. That’s when she decided she wanted to go to medical school, which meant finishing high school first.

While few people from Inuvik were travelling south in 1999, Lennie completed grades 10, 11 and 12 at MacEwan in Edmonton. She then attended U of A for a year, but the stresses of navigating life in the city — with so many distractions — became too much and she returned home to Inuvik. “It was the culture shock of everything. You can go to a hockey game in person, you can go to a concert, you can go out to eat. You have to learn the bus systems, how to get around the city. You have to learn how to live with a million people you don’t know. And time management was not a skill I had back then,” says Lennie.

By 2004, Lennie had completed two and a half years of a pre-med degree at Pensacola Christian College in Florida when the state was hit hard by four major hurricanes in the span of only six weeks. While Floridians were reeling from the storms’ impacts, Lennie headed back to Inuvik a second time and went to work at the Territorial Court Registry.

After working at the registry, Lennie moved to the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation as manager of health projects in community development, where she discovered a passion for health advocacy — both at a regional and national level — when she got to work on the Inuit Health Survey with Kue Young, then dean of the School of Public Health, during International Polar Year (2007-2008). The survey was part of the global drive to understand the impacts and adaptations of climate change and to gain insight into issues of community health and well-being in the Canadian Arctic. 

With persistence and determination — and a supportive mother who believes in the power of education and always encourages her children to pursue learning — Lennie earned a diploma in business administration from Inuvik’s Aurora College in 2014 and a bachelor of science in interdisciplinary studies through distance learning from Liberty University, Virginia in 2015, all while working full time. When the U of A was promoting its public health programs in the North in 2018, Lennie, who happened to be working in Yellowknife that weekend, attended the information session and decided to apply. By 2019 she was back at the U of A — now older and wiser — to complete a master’s degree in public health.

For the first three weeks of her program, Lennie attended an intensive course in public health, on campus. The rest of her courses were done online. She learned a lot from her colleagues and professors and appreciated getting to work on real-life scenarios. Lennie found mentors — her advisor, Susan Chatwood; School of Public Health Elder Denise McDonald; as well as other students from the North whose example encouraged her to finish her degree. Ruth Wolfe made an impact on Lennie too, by challenging her way of thinking in discussion forums, but also by listening and accepting her articulated rationale.  

Lennie’s heritage is Inuvialuit and part Gwich’in. For her practicum project, she used her Gwich’in connection to conduct public engagement sessions on food security with each of the Gwich’in communities. “I found that their communities are very traditional and there’s a heavy reliance on traditional food sources,” says Lennie. “And everything is expensive for them.” Her report concluded that almost 40 per cent of the local population were worried that they did not have enough money for food. “Through the community engagement sessions, I was able to tell their story in a report that’s useful for their community, providing the Gwich’in with a tool they can use for their advocacy purposes,” adds Lennie.

Grateful for the financial help, Lennie was surprised to receive an Indigenous bursary from the U of A. She also received funding through the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which paid for all course fees and practicum room-rental expenses. The Gwich'in Tribal Council paid for meeting and travel costs related to her practicum project in the Gwich’in communities — a significant sum. 

As an active Indigenous advocate, Lennie has attended many national and international meetings. She sat on the Canadian Institutes of Health Research advisory board for the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, was voted in as a member-at-large and sat for two terms on the International Union for Circumpolar Health, and was a panellist for Treaty Talks  — a group of young leaders interested in land claim negotiations — where she spoke on the Inuvialuit final agreement.

Because she’s Inuvialuit and passionate about the changes in the Arctic, Lennie was invited to participate in working groups that created the Ocean Decade - Arctic Action Plan. She also speaks out about Indigenous hiring policies and presented before the standing committee on Indigenous recruitment and retention with the Government of the Northwest Territories.

In addition to advocacy work, pursuing her master’s degree and working full time, Lennie also completed a Queen’s University program in governance for executives and achieved a certificate in Aboriginal leadership and governance from the Banff Centre. She’s now a training and development advisor for the Government of Northwest Territories Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, School of Community Government, where she works with community governments for their training needs in public works and delivers sessions on governance to all community government staff, including mayors and council. “I like change and I like helping communities,” says Lennie. 

Lennie is a role model for the youth in her community. She did an interview for CBC back in 2019, From drop-out to master’s student, Inuvik woman says ‘stay in school’, which has garnered her some attention and recognition. “I had people stop me at the airport and say, ‘Hey, I read your story and I’ve enrolled in school and I’m going to get my upgrading.” One of those people recently completed a program at Aurora College. 

“I would like to see that my story is a mentoring story,” says Lennie, who is auntie to 19 nieces and nephews. “I hope that any time an Indigenous person pursues their education and is successful in degree completion, it inspires my nieces and nephews to continue and further their education.”

As Lennie prepares for the trip to Edmonton and her upcoming convocation, she’s excited that this time some of her family will be there to celebrate with her. She plans to continue advocating where she can, and may pursue further education.

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