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English prof comes 'full circle' to take helm of Lakehead University

'To give back by serving as president is an incredible opportunity,' says Gillian Siddall, who wore sash created by Rama First Nation artist at her installation

With the school year complete, Dr. Gillian Siddall is reflecting on her first year as president of Lakehead University.

Siddall officially became president on July 1, 2023, but started working with the university in 1998 as a faculty member in the English department at the Thunder Bay campus.

She left 17 years later to become vice-president, academic, and provost at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and president of Emily Carr University.

After eight years in Toronto, Siddall, a Hamilton native, came "home" to Lakehead.

"To give back by serving as president is an incredible opportunity," she said. "It feels like a full-circle journey in terms of my career pathway."

She says she cares about the Orillia and Thunder Bay campuses equally.

"They are both absolutely committed to serving their regions," she said. "Both regions have lower participation rates for going to university, and both campuses are very much committed to addressing that and bringing more students in who might not otherwise come to university."

Siddall says Lakehead University gives students who "sometimes face a lot of barriers" the opportunity to finish a degree and go on to an "amazing" career. It is also committed to Truth and Reconciliation because of its relationship with surrounding First Nations communities.

"Lakehead has done many important things around that, one of which is the Indigenous content course requirement. We were the first university in Canada to institute that kind of requirement," she said.

At least 10 universities in Ontario have structural deficits and are not bringing in enough revenue to cover the annual costs of running a university and delivering programming. Lakehead falls into that category, and it was the biggest challenge faced by Siddall in her first year as president.

"The government established a blue-ribbon panel to look at this issue," she explained. "That panel made a bunch of recommendations, and the government took those under consideration to implement an increase in the funding that they provide, which is going to be a big help."

Lakehead has had some confirmation of funding and should receive the rest "very soon," she said.

Looking to the future, Siddall says expansion is coming to the Orillia campus.

"We are kind of bursting at the seams right now," she said. "It's one of our top priorities — to build a new building here and look at community partnerships that can help us expand our program offerings."

A new building is expected to come to the Orillia campus within the next five years.

"It will be a significant-sized building and will really help us to expand our offerings and the number of students we can enrol," Siddall said.

The need for expansion proves Lakehead is a "desirable" destination for students.

"It's got that lovely small-town experience," she said. "Students have the experience of being in small classes together, faculty know their names, and it's really a wonderful community."

Lakehead is working on a new strategic planning process considering what students and faculty envision for the school's future.

"That's going to shape where we go over the next five years," Siddall said. "That will be done by the end of the calender year, and we will be excited to move ahead with some new priorities."

Last week, a ceremony was held to formally recognize Siddall as president. She took a non-conventional approach to the event.

"I really wanted to make it acknowledge that Lakehead University's campuses sit on First Nations land," she said.

Prior to the ceremony, she met with Fort William First Nation Chief Michele Solomon, who offered to hold the ceremony on Anemki Wajiw, a sacred mountain near Thunder Bay.

"That was a great honour for me," Siddall said, noting that she wore special regalia to the event that included two sashes commissioned by Indigenous artists, including Melissa Benson, of Rama First Nation.

"The sashes are absolutely beautiful," she said. "The installation ceremony was very special."


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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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