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Alberta Five questions with University of Saskatchewan’s student union president

Jack Saddleback, president of the students union, stands inside the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, Jan. 29, 2016.

Jack Saddleback is the president of the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union. The 26-year-old sociology major, who is from Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., and grew up in Calgary, is the third consecutive USSU president to identify as an indigenous person. That, however, is just a part of what makes Mr. Saddleback's election – and his agenda – historic.

What is your background?

People like to joke that I'm the King of Diversity. What I hold most near and dear to my heart is I'm a Cree, two-spirited, transgender, gay man. That's who I am. I certainly don't hide my identities. I feel it is important that I be vocal about who I am because it is vital that we talk about diversity and diverse experiences in leadership. We need to encourage younger people to see themselves within these roles and not necessarily shy away from standing up and speaking up and fighting for rights for everyone.

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At times I do play down the historic aspect of me being in this position because I'm a little bit of a shy guy. I'm more than thankful to be in a position where I think the University of Saskatchewan is at a point where they are very accepting of all backgrounds.

How did you feel about running for president?

I was very much on the fence. It was 30 minutes before the nominations closed I went and talked to a very good friend of mine. I was pretty worried about actually running for this. My own internal battle was the feeling of people seeing me as being too brown, or being too gay, or being too trans. And my friend sat me down and said: "You know, if you don't let them choose if they are ready for it, you'll never know." For me, that was the tipping point. I had to give the choice to the student body. Are you ready for this? Are you ready to have an individual of diverse background? Are you ready to bring these things to the forefront and to highlight them? And the student body was. So here we are.

When I was campaigning, I really focused on my skills, my experiences and my passion. And that's what students voted in. They voted in the vision that we brought – a mental-health strategy, a sexual-assault policy, student engagement and community engagement. And that's what I feel students were rallying behind. The most interesting part about this whole experience is we just happened to make history at the same time.

You advocate for 'indigenization' within the colleges at the University of Saskatchewan. What's a tangible example of indigenizing a curriculum?I can see a lot of benefits for various disciplines in simply picking up pieces of indigenous knowledge. When you're looking at dentistry, for example, you [could look] at the various dietary restrictions or dietary aspects that have moved into aboriginal communities due to (a) the economic factors and (b) the access to food. And why, when you're looking at dentistry, would there be more cavities or oral problems in aboriginal people?

We want it to actually be a meaningful aspect for students so they can understand why there are social disparities in our society, why [for example] there are such high crime rates or low graduation rates [for indigenous people in Canada]. We want students to understand the underlying effects that have taken place over generations.

It would be up to the colleges to assess what would be meaningful for them, but I'm more than confident the colleges at the University of Saskatchewan will be able to set a precedent across this country as well as for colleges across the world in regards to teaching and incorporating indigenous content.

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Why is this important?

When we are graduating students, we not only want to graduate good students but we want to graduate good citizens. And by looking at the history of our country, I think that we are going to see that we can start to look at the societal aspects and the social disparities that are taking place here. And to start to break down those barriers and break down our own ideas that have permeated through mainstream society to understand that, you know, we're all just people.

What would you like your legacy to be?

When I think about what kind of legacy this year will hold, not only for myself but for the [USSU] executive team and for the university student council, what I think our fingerprints will be all over is the progressive change that we all put forward when you're looking at the sexual assault policy, when you're looking at the indigenous content, when you're looking at pushing for mental health. Progressive change is being made for all peoples, because we don't want to leave any student behind. We're here to enhance the student experience for all students. What we need is to make an inclusive space that welcomes, respects, and celebrates all students.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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