Mackenzie Brown

Mackenzie Brown, Bachelor of Child and Youth Care ’18, is one of the first recipients of MacEwan’s Emerging Leader Award. She is a performer, drummer, artist, tourism entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate for at-risk youth.

Four years ago, Mackenzie Brown was freshly home from a practicum with the Maori people in New Zealand. She had a crisp new Bachelor of Child and Youth Care parchment in her hand and every intention of heading out into the world to begin her practice working with youth.

“I was inspired and excited to take two seemingly clashing worlds – Indigenous and western – and find ways to see them in parallel,” says Brown, one of the first recipients of MacEwan’s new Emerging Leader Award

But Brown’s many interests and commitments, everything from drumming and performing to art and youth, caught up with her. “I was trying to do it all, and it wasn’t working.” So she pressed pause on her career and took a bit of a break that ultimately led her in a different direction.

The tourism industry may seem a world away from child and youth care, but a posting for an internship with Travel Alberta caught Brown’s eye. 

“I’ve been a drummer and singer since I was 12 years old, and my family has always worked with international and domestic tourists in Jasper,” she explains. “I thought Indigenous tourism was something I could do.”

That internship led to a year as Explore Edmonton’s first Indigenous tourism specialist and ultimately steered her toward Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA) – an Indigenous-owned and led not-for-profit organization that works with Indigenous businesses across the province. 

On National Indigenous Peoples Day
“I hope people remember that June 21 isn’t the only day to celebrate Indigenous cultures. You can have so many different experiences throughout the year to learn about truth and reconciliation in a fun and approachable way. There are unique accommodations, culinary tours, guided hikes, plant walks and Indigenous artisans doing incredible work. is a great place to start exploring.”

For the past two years, as ITA’s director of industry development, Brown’s focus has been twofold: working with entrepreneurs to develop programs embedded in Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being, and building relationships with non-Indigenous allies in the tourism industry.  

“Whatever our entrepreneurs' hopes and dreams are – growing their businesses, hiring more staff or expanding their programs – we try to help them accomplish them,” she says. “It’s important that we are there for each other as a community because we need to be the ones using our voice to tell our Indigenous stories – nothing about us without us.”

It’s a grassroots approach that hinges on relationships. 

“I use the skills I learned in my degree every day, whether it’s connecting with people, meeting them where they’re at or finding creative solutions that are ‘outside of the box, but within the circle,’” says Brown. “Everything I learned during my child and youth care program directly applies to my job today.”

And Brown has seen much success in the two years she has spent in her job with ITA – the organization's membership grew from 38 to 206 Indigenous businesses even while the pandemic devastated the tourism industry.

Advocating for those businesses, lifting them up, helping them meet their goals and building partnerships that remind non-Indigenous organizations that they can – and should – find ways to celebrate Indigenous culture outside of National Indigenous Peoples Day is all in a day’s work for Brown. 

I think of myself as a bridge. My job is to build understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities that can create real change.
Mackenzie Brown

Sometimes that change happens by the spoonful, says Brown. Like how Travel Alberta, one of ITA’s strongest allies, increased access for people rooted in oral traditions by adding the option to upload a video in this year’s grant application. Other times, she says, it’s by the bucket. 

“We did cultural awareness training across the province last year, and we’re still seeing ripple effects from that – organizations creating Indigenous tourism strategies and being allies for Indigenous tourism businesses. That’s huge.”

While Brown is busy finding ways to support Indigenous tourism businesses, she continues to build her own. She drums, sings and started taking mural art commissions (back in 2018, she was a top-three finalist on the reality TV show Landscape Artist of the Year Canada). Right now, she’s collaborating with three other artists on a mural focused on health and wellness through an Indigenous lens for the Foothills Hospital in Calgary and another mural in that city’s Inglewood community this fall. 

“I’m a big science nerd,” she says, laughing. “I spent the year before transferring to child and youth care studying biochemistry, so my piece of the mural blends aspects of landscape and science. This piece will be a DNA strand that looks like it’s going through space and has different pictures embedded within it that connect to health and wellness.”

Striking a balance among her many interests is something Brown continues to work on. “These are all parts of me – I can’t separate them, but I try to keep in mind a question an Elder once asked me, ‘How can you be a human being and not a human doing?’ So every year, I try to choose an intention that helps me find that balance. This year it’s art.”

Choosing art has meant turning down opportunities to perform, but Brown doesn’t have a problem with that. 

“In Cree, tawâw means welcome, but it also means that there is space for all of us,” she says. “If I can’t take on a gig, I know there are tons of other talented people who can.” 

And that idea of creating space for others is at the heart of how Brown views leadership. 

“When I look at great leaders, I think of people who help lift others up and use the platform they have as a means to do that. It’s the idea that we all succeed when one of us succeeds.” 

But being an effective leader, adds Brown, also means taking care of yourself. 

“I know from my time in child and youth care that when the work is hard, you need to be able to take a step back and fill up your own cup before you can continue filling others.” 

So on National Indigenous Peoples Day this year, you won’t find Brown performing. The big, grand events are fun, she says, but for the last couple of years, her focus has been on smaller celebrations and spending time in community. This year, she plans to join friends who run an Indigenous youth program and spend the day drumming, singing and spending time with them.

“Our Indigenous youth are doing such amazing things and an incredible force to be reckoned with,” she says. “I’m excited to be part of trying to create a world where they can reach their full potential and whatever goals they choose to set for themselves.” 

That is part of why Brown says she is excited to receive MacEwan’s first Emerging Leader Award. 

“There are a ton of amazing youth leaders right now, and this award is an important way to acknowledge that leadership is not necessarily tied to age. I’m humbled and excited to be recognized in this way. I know I always have a community at MacEwan, and that’s really wonderful.”

“I think of myself as a bridge,” she says. “My job is to build understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities that can create real change.”

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