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Michael DeGagné is the president of Nipissing University in North Bay. (CBC) Growing up, Michael DeGagné says his Indigenous culture was never front and centre.

"I would identify myself I think at that time more as a northerner," he said.

"I was aware of my ancestry. My dad was French-Canadian. My mother’s an Indigenous woman. But it really wasn’t that much of a factor until I started working."

DeGagné was born in Fort Frances and lived in several northern Ontario communities until his family settled in Sudbury. From there, his dad got a job in Kenya. The whole family went for several years, and DeGagné graduated high school overseas.

"I wanted to be a doctor," he said.

"I thought that would be a great way to be a public servant. It certainly seemed like the people I had been at school with whose parents were doctors, they certainly seemed like they had opportunity to give back to communities." Youth worker experience

DeGagné did some post-secondary education in Paris and eventually studied at the University of Toronto. He finished studying education and administration in Michigan.

"I wish I could say there was a plan [when I graduated], but there really wasn’t," he said.

"I think in the long run, I think what I did with my summers as a student was probably more instrumental in shaping a career than my education."

During his summers, he would work at Atikameksheng Anishnawbek as a youth worker. His job was to start programs for young people to participate in during the summer break. Healing foundation

DeGagné says that early experience inspired him to work with young people later in his career.

His connection to his Indigenous culture became front and centre again when he became the founding executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a national group which addressed the legacy of residential schools.

That group lead to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes 94 calls to action.

After his work with the healing foundation came to an end, DeGané got a call to come back to northern Ontario. Six years ago, he became the president of Nipissing University in North Bay. He’s the first Indigenous president of a Canadian chartered university.

"As all Indigenous people in Canada, we have to step into roles of leadership and move the markers forward," he said.

"So I think of it as, in part, an obligation but also a really wonderful opportunity, very positive."

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