Student, mom, inspiring role-model – meet Aja Oliver


Student Aja Oliver - photo supplied

Student Aja Oliver – photo supplied

A few short years ago, Aja Oliver would not have believed she would be working as a community support worker while attending classes at The University of Winnipeg.

The 35 year-old single mother with four children, who range from 7 to 18 years old, now feels “there is nothing I cannot do.”  The remarkable life transformation that Aja is experiencing mirrors the rebirth of her home community, Lord Selkirk Park.

Located in Winnipeg’s North End, this low-income housing development used to be so dangerous it was called a war zone. Gangs, graffiti, drugs and boarded up windows kept residents isolated and indoors.

“I was really nervous about moving here with my kids, but I had no choice,” says Aja. “I was on social assistance and living my whole life below the poverty line. I dropped out of school at a young age and had my daughter when I was 17 years old. Education was something I did not think I could do. No one in my family had ever finished high school.”

Led by the North End Community Renewal Corporation, changes started to happen. Residents in Lord Selkirk Park were hired to go door to door and ask people what they wanted to see in their neighbourhood. A daycare, play structures, a place to learn, a resource centre – these were identified. Slowly people emerged from their units and over a number of years, with financial support from the provincial government, built a new neighbourhood from within.

The turning point for Aja came with the opening of Kaakiyow (which means a school for all people), an adult education program right in the midst of the housing development.

“It made a huge difference to go to classes right here with a daycare centre next door. I was 34 years old when I graduated with my grade 12,” says Aja. “I never knew I could go to university. I found out about the Urban and Inner-City Studies program at UWinnipeg because professor Jim Silver is part of Lord Selkirk’s redevelopment. As soon as I graduated from high school, doors started to open for me. This is a dream come true.”

Aja also applied for and got a part-time job as a community support worker at Kaakiyow. “I love this community, we welcome everyone here. Now I get to talk to people and let them know about the programs we have and how they can get involved. It is really easy to feel defeated on social assistance. Now we have a daycare and school and community gardens and BBQs. I feel our self-esteem is rising.”

“Aja exemplifies the resurgence being led by young Indigenous people in Winnipeg’s inner city, and Urban and Inner-City Studies is proud to be able to play a part in this process,” said Silver. “She is thriving and earning high grades as an outstanding student, and is already giving back to her community. Aja is inspiring others at Kaakiyow to earn their grade 12 and attend university”.

Her career goal is to be involved in creation of a healing centre to help people living with the intergenerational traumas caused by residential schools and the 60s Scoop. “In my own family, I grew up with these effects. My Métis family experienced the 60s Scoop and my mother, who is First Nations, experienced racism. Many people need the chance to heal.”

One of the things she is most proud of is being a role-model to her children. “I am totally blessed with amazing kids,” says Aja. “Now they see what I am doing and hope they can follow in my footsteps.” Her 18 year-old daughter graduates high school this June and is enrolling in the same Urban and Inner City Studies program as her mom.

“One course in particular that has had a big impact on me is “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” with professor Myra Laramee. The class developed a bond and by the end it really felt like we were family. We learned a lot about healing and Anishinaabe teachings. Also, we did a group oracle presentation which will have a very important role and impact on the rest of my life.”

The transformation of Lord Selkirk Park is the subject of a new film called A Good Place to Live, by UWinnipeg’s Dr. Jim Silver (Urban and Inner-City Studies) and Dr. Ian Mauro (Geography).

A Good Place to Live – free screening and discussion with Dr. Jim Silver – everyone welcome

Monday, February 12, 2018
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM 
University of Winnipeg
Eckhardt Gramatté Hall
3rd floor, Centennial Hall



Diane Poulin, Senior Communications Specialist, The University of Winnipeg

P: 204.988.7135, E:




Comments are closed.