Helping communities, affecting change

Zoyer Clayden Tabobondung '14 reflects on his role as Special Regional Assistant to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations

Above: Zoyer Clayden Tabobondung '14 and Minister Marc Miller holding the enacted Anishinabek Nation Governance Agreement. "This agreement is 15+ years in the making," wrote Zoyer at the time. "My family and my people have been discussing the idea of ANGA for generations. Extremely proud to be a part of this work."

by Glen Herbert

I reached Zoyer Clayden Tabobondung ’14 by phone in Ottawa while he was having a catch-up day. He’d spent the morning in the office on Parliament Hill, editing and drafting responses to people who had approached the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller. He’d also prioritised some notes for Miller’s approval, including one about an addition to a reserve, and another regarding an amendment to an existing agreement with a community in Atlantic Canada.

You know, just your average day. Zoyer is Special Regional Assistant for Ontario and the Atlantic to the Office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, a position he’s held since 2021. When not catching up on correspondence, he’s briefing the minister, getting him prepared for meetings with First Nations communities, and visiting with community leaders throughout the region. The mandate of the Ministry is to renew relationships between Canada and Indigenous communities and to support their visions of self-determination. Zoyer works out of the ministry headquarters in Gatineau as well as the office on the Hill. Many days he’s seated alongside the MPs and political staffers within the House of Commons, and at committees, affecting change.

So, yes. It's impressive. He admits that it really is a pinch-me kind of job. “Especially at first, for sure, you’re kind of in awe of the space you’re occupying. Politics aside, you’re working in the place where you can have the largest impact on Canadians.” That sense of awe remains, if somewhat muted. “Now it’s just a normal part of my life," he says. "But when you get the big win on policies or certain things, those are the days that are really good, because you realize the impact you’ve had on people beyond your community.” Like the day the Minister enacted the Anishinabek Nation Governance Agreement. "This agreement is 15+ years in the making," he wrote in a social media post last April. "My family and my people have been discussing the idea of ANGA for generations. Extremely proud to be a part of this work."

" ... the opportunity to figure things out for yourself" 

Zoyer was raised in Wasauksing First Nation, and grew up in a family of leadership. His uncle was a chief then, another is a chief now. “I was a little kid running around the kitchen table when all of the grown-ups were talking about politics and the things that they wanted to achieve as a community.” For his part, “I was dead set on being a hockey player.”

He arrived at RLC in 2010, enrolling for his Grade 9 year. His parents felt that it would open up his perspective on the world while offering a range of opportunity. And it did. When I ask him if there was a member of the faculty that he thinks of as a mentor, he names three. Trent Howell, the athletic coach, pushed him to be better and to work harder, “but he also gave me the opportunity to go out there and perform, which really helped build my confidence.” Len Beaulne "taught a lot of valuable lessons about the kind of person that I wanted to be as an adult.” Carl McCready, who taught economics and history and politics, “started getting me thinking about the systems that exist today that explain how the world operates.” He adds, “they didn’t’ push you to do a specific thing. They gave you the support and the opportunity to figure things out for yourself.”

RLC was also a new, and very personal, window on the world. His best friend was from Japan, there were friends from Spain and elsewhere, all within a student body that reflected, he says, “all the differences that people have that make the world such a great place.” Coming back to campus, the spaces are animated with memories. “It’s almost like you’re watching a movie." The RAC is full of good memories—“we spent a lot of time around the ping pong table"—as is the waterfront and the swim dock. He says, “those were the spaces where you could just be people. We weren’t students or teachers. We weren’t from Japan or Spain or Parry Sound. We were just coming together as friends and embracing the moment.”

Supporting relationships 

In many ways, that sense of community—and the interplay of how we're all different in many ways and the same in many others—is something he sees as a gift that RLC gave him. “The opportunities to develop those skills and build those relationships,” he says, "that’s been a really foundational skill that I’ve developed. To develop and maintain a lot of really solid relationships. That’s what really makes RLC what it is.”

Today, that's what he does professionally, if on a decidedly larger scale. “Indigenous peoples themselves are diverse,” he says. “The minister will look to me to provide those regional insights, and how a program or policy might impact those communities, good or bad.” There's also time spent actively in the field, listening to people, hearing their stories and their aspirations. There is joy in “just being able to use the skills I’ve developed to build and maintain relationships between Canada and the First Nations communities, helping them to realise the change they want to see” in the country and in the world.

It’s perhaps easy to be cynical about government, which sometimes feels like the default setting these days. But Zoyer, instead, sees both history and possibility. “There’s still a lot more work to do, and I don’t think this government or any government always gets things right. But it's all about that ever-present goal of trying to be better and do better.”

It’s an extension of what he loved best about at RLC: allowing others the opportunity to find things out for themselves, to seek their own paths. “I think every Canadian has a responsibility to put their best foot forward … even in our day-to-day lives there are things we can be doing that help advance that goal. As Canadians, we’re all here and trying to do our best and live a good life.” He believes that the country is best when it’s a work in progress. “This idea of a place where everyone can come and have an opportunity to succeed … where we all have a voice. Democracy is only as strong as its citizens are willing to engage with it and support it. We all have a role to play.”

We certainly do.

Zoyer’s siblings MaryJoyce ’15 and Melizza ’17 are also graduates of RLC, and their mother Dawn Tabobondung, came on staff in 2022 as Indigenous Seven Generations Program Coordinator.

Left to right: Dawn Tabobondung, Zoyer Clayden Tabobondung '14, Minister Marc Miller, Melizza Clayden Tabobondung '17MaryJoyce Clayden Tabobondung '15, and Tim Clayden.