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‘We belong here’: JD/MBA student shares journey to embracing her Indigenous identity

May 30, 2023

Brianna Morrison’s (JD/MBA '25) journey to embracing her identity as a Métis Cree woman is complex and ever-changing. She is of mixed heritage — including Métis Cree and Settler (Slovenian, Austrian, German) — from Edmonton, Alta. Treaty 6 Territory.

Brianna Morrison

Morrison has long had a complicated relationship with her Indigenous heritage, and felt compelled to lean into the white part of her identity to fit in. It wasn’t until she entered university that she began to dig deeper into her Indigenous roots.

Currently in the joint JD/MBA program at the University of Toronto, Morrison keeps busy outside of her studies. When she’s not volunteering at the Indigenous Human Rights Program, she works with Indigenous youth at Kapapamahchakwew - Wandering Spirit School in Toronto, running workshops on Indigenous law, the criminal justice system, restorative justice and beyond. Prior to moving to Toronto, she completed a bachelor of arts in political science at the University of Alberta.

Morrison is one of the first Rotman MBA students who have entered the program through the school’s new partnership with Indspire, an Indigenous charity that provides bursaries and scholarships to First Nations, Inuit and Métis students.

The partnership is one of the ways the school is introducing pathways for more Indigenous representation within the Rotman community. It’s also in line with recent recommendations from the Rotman Indigenous Task Force, which was created by Dean Susan Christoffersen in early 2022. Formed in response to the University of Toronto’s calls to action towards truth and reconciliation, members of the task force included leaders in the Indigenous business community and Rotman.

Morrison sat down with Rotman to reflect on the journey that led her the JD/MBA program, and her hopes for future generations of Indigenous students.


Can you describe your relationship with your Indigenous heritage as a child?

There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma in Indigenous families, including my own. My grandparents were residential school survivors, while my father survived Ermineskin Indian Day School. Growing up, my dad unfortunately felt like he needed to distance me and my sister from the Indigenous community because of all the pain he endured — he thought people would look at us differently if they knew we were Indigenous. He wasn't wrong. When I was in junior high, I shared it with some of my classmates, and I could tell their perception of me changed in the way they talked to me and made jokes they didn't realize were hurtful or racist.


When did your perception of your heritage begin to shift?

When I was in undergrad, I watched a documentary by John Borrows [Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law] and that was the first time I saw Indigenous culture portrayed in such a positive light. Afterwards, I began reading everything he wrote, seeking out any opportunity to learn more about what it means to be Indigenous. I owe so much to Borrows for showing me that there's so much healing and pride that can be felt by connecting back to my culture.

At the Faculty of Law, we have an Elder-in-Residence, Constance Simmonds, who has also been a great support in helping me embrace my Indigenous heritage. I went to my first sweat lodge ceremony with Elder Constance in March, which was a very surreal, intimate and healing experience.


What drew you to study business alongside law?

My interest in health law played a large role in why I also wanted to do an MBA. I hope to establish a corporate health practice, where I can provide advice for managing and regulating the administration of health care delivery systems. I really enjoy the idea of working in an innovative and challenging field, and I believe it’s an area where I can make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. And I was confident that the MBA at Rotman would provide me with the resources I would need to strengthen my management abilities and gain valuable insight into the corporate sector.


What has been the best part of the MBA experience so far?

The best part is definitely all the incredible people I’ve met. Rotman welcomes a large number of students from diverse backgrounds, which truly enriches the learning experience. I’ve learned so much from my peers, and it’s fascinating to see how different perspectives and experiences can shape one's approach to business problems. The collegial culture at Rotman has given me friendships that will last a lifetime. 


You’re one of the first recipients of the Indspire and Rotman scholarship. What impact does this scholarship have on your studies and beyond?

It’s hard to put into words the impact of receiving an Indspire scholarship, especially at the amount I was awarded. I feel a great sense of relief knowing that I have the financial support to continue my education without having to worry about managing a job alongside my studies.

I appreciate that Indspire’s application process doesn’t overburden students with excessive requirements. I remember a different bursary I applied to asked for a decade’s worth of my parents’ income statements — which felt a bit overwhelming — and I imagine can present barriers for students wanting to apply. 

The Indspire scholarship is a reminder that my hard work and dedication is valued and appreciated. It motivates me to continue pursuing my academic and career goals.


Do you have any big dreams for 10, 20, 30 years from now?

My ultimate dream is to become Minister of Health, but more than anything I just hope to have a career where I can influence positive change in some capacity. Should I become a healthcare lawyer, I want to advocate for healthcare reform that prioritizes addressing gender and racial bias in medical treatment. And then eventually, when I retire, I want to open a dog sanctuary. I have three dogs and would love to always have dogs in my life!


How would you describe the value of Indigenous representation in business and society?

I think there are so many opportunities within the business world to learn from Indigenous knowledge and perspectives. In negotiations, reciprocity is integral to how many Indigenous communities conduct themselves in forming partnerships. Reciprocity involves establishing enduring relationships that can benefit all parties involved, which aligns with the prospecting negotiation approach we’ve been studying at Rotman.

Above all, I think incorporating Indigenous perspectives in business is not only valuable, but necessary for creating a more responsive business environment that can support all business ventures, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. 


Do you have any words of advice for Indigenous students who may be considering pursuing higher education?

I hope to show other Indigenous students that we belong in these spaces, and that our presence in higher education is needed to challenge and expand traditional academic knowledge. It can be overwhelming at first. I remember feeling incredibly out of place, questioning whether I truly belonged in academia and if I could succeed. But eventually, I saw that my distinct background added value to my education and offered me opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

So, trust in your abilities, take every opportunity open to you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Academia can be a daunting place, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Above all, I want Indigenous students to know that we are just as deserving and just as capable as any other student pursuing higher education.


Written by Jessie Park | More student and alumni stories →