Heather Buffalo—Brings business principles to the delivery of social services on the Samson Cree reserve
Heather Buffalo: Master of Business Administration, 2014
Based in: Maskwacis, Alta.
“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes—proving only that clichés can persist despite being untrue. The idea is that it’s impossible to return to your past. But you can go back to your roots, of course—and quite happily, as Heather Buffalo will tell you.
Buffalo grew up in Samson Cree Nation, in Alta., but left to pursue studies in Calgary and then Los Angeles before coming home to Maskwacis, where she has spent the last two decades working to bring change and innovation to community programs.
Buffalo, who has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Athabasca University (AU), is senior manager for Nipisihkopahk Wellness and Social Development on the Samson reserve. The value of education was instilled by her father, a 5 term Samson Cree Chief, and founder of an education trust that brought the first on-reserve schools to the community in the 1980s.
“What benefited me the most was [studying] negotiation.”– Heather Buffalo (Master of Business Administration '14)
As a teen, Heather went to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a top-notch Catholic high school in Wilcox, Sask., with an emphasis on academics, athletics, and faith. Post-graduation, she started with modest ambitions. She took a few courses at Mount Royal University in Calgary, then returned to Samson to work a series of clerical jobs, in customer service, and payroll. In 1994, she returned to school, leaving home for Glendale Community College, in California.
“I needed something different in my life, and I had friends down there,” she says.
California was certainly different; on her first night in her own apartment the famous Northridge earthquake occurred. But she settled into her new life. At first, she says, “my aspirations weren’t high at all.” Then she met a student counselor, who reviewed her coursework and encouraged her to apply to California State University.
“She was really good and really patient,” Buffalo says.
So, Buffalo did, and was accepted. She earned her Bachelor of Science in business administration from Cal-State, then headed back to Canada after graduating in 1999. It was not a struggle to leave sunny L.A.
“With the new tools, my team and I have worked to integrate programs and departments and break down silos. With limited resources. We do our best.”– Heather Buffalo
“I was going home,” she says. “I got a U-Haul, and my family came down and helped me move.”
For a time, she worked at Peace Hills Trust, the First Nations-owned bank, then moved on to a position as manager of human resource training and development for Samson Cree Nation. Her role involved helping low-income individuals participate in training programs and opportunities for employment.
In 2007, hungry for another challenge, she enrolled at AU. She continued to work, and a couple of years after she enrolled, she was promoted to her current position. She now oversees various departments in the area of social development focusing on service delivery to Samson Cree Nation members and residents.
Her MBA proved useful from day one, she says. Her coursework focused on areas such as leadership, change-management theory, and team building—which were entirely relevant to her new position.
“What benefited me the most was (studying) negotiation,” she says, explaining that she deals a lot with provincial and federal governments on funding arrangements.
Her MBA program also helped her in “changing the culture in the organization,” she says. In her work, Buffalo found herself confronting some staffing issues.
“At one point I was overseeing 15 managers, and I thought that was ridiculous,” she says. “Some of the work was redundant and some of it was duplication. They all knew changes needed to be made, and we were going to streamline.”
The challenge was getting people onside.
“I brought them all together and we did kind of a retreat. It took time, but we compromised and agreed to 5 managers,” she says.
The focus of the social services she oversees is, she says, “building capacity among community members to help each other.” There are funding constraints, of course.
“One of the biggest challenges is in not meeting the needs of every person,” she says.
But she aims to bring a solid grounding in business principles to the administration of programs and resources on the reserve.
“With the new tools, my team and I have worked to integrate programs and departments and break down silos,” she said. “With limited resources, we do our best.”
Learn more about AU’s MBA program.