Alumni Shout-Out: Lewis MacKinnon

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The Beacon

Over the past few issues, The Beacon has featured interviews with StFX University alumni on the topic of STFXAUT members who challenged, inspired, or helped in some way.

This issue’s interview is with Lewis MacKinnon (BA ’92, MA ’11), Executive Director of Gaelic Affairs for the Province of Nova Scotia.

The Beacon: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Lewis MacKinnon: Born in Cape Breton and raised in Antigonish County. Moved to Dunmore, Lower South River, Antigonish County when I was three. Grew up on a farm and knew the life of someone raised in the country. Had wonderful memories of neighbours and the connections that we had growing up. Most of my immediate neighbours were farming families as well. So that was a big part of my early days and, of course, was involved in various aspects in the community: the church, 4H, Scouts, and minor hockey.

The Beacon: And you attended StFX University?

Lewis MacKinnon: I graduated from Dr. John Hugh Gillis and I guess, StFX, in a sense it was there. A number of my friends were going and I didn’t really think about going anywhere else. StFX just seemed like the next logical progression for me.

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Photograph of Lewis MacKinnon courtesy Communications Nova Scotia

The Beacon: During your time at X was there any instructor, or possibly a research librarian, or a lab instructor… someone who was particularly inspiring or helpful and helped you choose a major or lessons you’ve learned that have helped you in your career?

Lewis MacKinnon: I think in the early days a lot of it for me was sort of figuring it out as I went. And, interestingly enough, I now work full time in Gaelic language, culture and identity in the province. At the time I took Gaelic as a course at StFX through the Celtic Studies Department.

The Beacon: You weren’t a speaker prior to this?

Lewis MacKinnon: I was very much a learner. Gaelic was spoken in my family and I took an interest as a teenager. I had that particular, I suppose, identity interest. I was very much interested in my Gaelic identity and drawn to it and I was also very interested in politics. I did an Advanced Major in politics and a minor in Celtic Studies.

I think the profs that stand out for me, because I also had theology and English courses and history courses included in my undergraduate: Dr. Pat Walsh, Dr. [George] Sanderson, Dr. Will Sweet, Dr. Jim Bickerton, Dr. Ken Neilson, and also Katrina Parsons who taught in the Celtic Studies Department. I think those individuals, in their own way, inspired me, challenged me, and I think created the environment in which I felt that I wanted to learn more, that I wanted to pursue more in terms of my own learning journey. I think back on those individuals, in particular, and the contributions that they made and [they] certainly made me to feel that my commitment was valued and was important.

The Beacon: What in particular have you taken from those experiences and been able to apply to your professional career?

Lewis MacKinnon: I went on after StFX and I went abroad. I lived in Mexico for a year. I did an undergraduate, a post degree exchange. Technically it was supposed to be a junior year, third year, exchange with Ibero Mericano, which is a small private, I don’t know if it’s a Jesuit run school still, but I think it was certainly influenced by the Jesuit Order in Mexico City.

I should add Dr. David Lawless was instrumental in supporting that particular part of my academic development. I ended up doing the exchange after I did my undergrad and it was one of the best experiences I ever had. I did all my academic work, the year that I was in Mexico, through the medium of Spanish and still speak Spanish to this day. I did that and then I came back and I had a political run and that didn’t work out.

The Beacon: I wasn’t aware of that!

Lewis MacKinnon: You weren’t aware of that? No, yeah, I ran for the federal parliament in 1993. And following that, sort of thinking, you know, what was the next step and, again, looked to higher learning to further my own knowledge and skills and so ended up doing a qualifying year for a Masters in Economic Development at Dalhousie. I believe Dr. Neilson and Dr. Lawless wrote letters of support at the time to Dalhousie. That wasn’t the career path for me, economic development, but I think I’m doing economic development in some ways now, which is quite interesting. I ended up completing my qualifying year and then I went into the private sector for ten years. I was the manager of the corporate office of Zep Manufacturing for Atlantic Canada.

Somewhere in the process at Zep I realized that… and I continued to stay very closely connected to the Gaelic community in the province and was very active on a volunteer basis. Served with the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia for a number of years. Worked to advocate for Gaelic language and cultural development and somehow I felt that I needed to do more to develop my own linguistic and cultural skills. I sought and I got support to do a Masters in Celtic Studies on a part-time basis while I was working full-time. That was a very challenging number of years for me, but at the same time, I was so fortunate to be able to do that. It was between 2003 and 2005 when I did my coursework. So I would travel twice a week to Antigonish from Halifax and do coursework, any follow up research that was required, and drive back, work, and go back whatever the next day in the schedule was. I graduated in 2011 when I finally got my thesis completed. Having that was really significant in my view in being considered for, as an advisor I guess initially, and then eventually for the position of Executive Director for Gaelic Affairs which really I had no sense would ever be an entity that government would establish in the province. So that sort of all laid the foundational work for moving from the corporate sector into government in 2006.

The Beacon: It’s a bit of a transition, I would think.

Lewis MacKinnon: Yeah, it was a transition. It is a different culture but I think in a lot of ways, government, business, corporations: ultimately it’s about personal relationships, it’s about working to the best of your ability, thinking strategically, thinking to the best of your ability; again, some of us are much more competent and function and able to complete tasks and some of us are, very much, sort of strategic. And so I think there’s all of that within, whether you’re in business or you’re in government, but, ultimately, it’s about working with individuals within those organizations that, ultimately, is the most important element in how you’re able to work with others and recognize the contributions of others and build consensus and work to build partnerships. So all of that’s really foundational stuff in terms of developing whatever it is that you’re trying to develop.

The Beacon: You mentioned the fact that two of your professors at X were good enough to write you a letter of recommendation and you listed another one that helped you enroll in the Mexican school. Was there anything else that was particularly inspiring and/or helpful?

Lewis MacKinnon: I think one of the things that you quickly become aware of at StFX is that there’s a sense of service that people carry with them. I experienced that with all of the professors that I had the good fortune to work with over my years at StFX. There’s a greater sense of purpose, I think, in terms of how the educators that touched my life looked at their own lives and their own immediate communities, and beyond, and felt that it was important to be engaged outside of their immediate work responsibilities in a spirit of giving and a spirit of supporting and having a sense of, I don’t want to say a moral compass, but a sense of duty, I think, based upon a sense of values that they sort of collectively carried. Which was: the most important thing is to serve others and to help better the wellbeing of others.

The Beacon: Well, I think, that’s plenty, Lewis, unless there’s something you want to add.

Lewis MacKinnon: I think there’s a lot of other connecting points. I look at the university built primarily by Gaelic speaking clergy: both priests and nuns were engaged. I think that in some ways I’ve always felt connected into that tradition of the university and have gained inspiration and one other figure that I recall is Father Malcolm MacDonnell, Monsignor MacDonnell, who had retired from active work at the university by my time but I remember him stopping me in the SUB, and this would be around the period when I was doing my Masters in Celtic Studies, and he said, “I’m so proud of you. You’ve come to fluency in Gaelic”. I was sort of self-critical and told him that I’m not that proficient yet, father. “I won’t hear any of that,” he said. “You’ve done really exceptional”. And it’s those kinds of things, I think, along with that greater sense of purpose and duty, there’s also those moments when many educators at StFX took the time to recognize the small things that were done.

I’ll just finish with this: I think what I was referencing when I said I did a qualifying year for a Masters in Economic Development and it turned out that that wasn’t the professional path for me. However, what I do think, and believe firmly, is the work that I’m about today is all about community development in the sense of language, culture and identity being absolutely central points in a community in terms of helping, supporting individuals and groups in feeling good about their own identity and their own place in their community. That’s the starting point for innovation; that’s the starting point for change; that’s the starting point for great things. I think that’s really the work that we’re engaged in in terms of supporting Nova Scotians in reconnecting, reclaiming, regenerating their Gaelic identity and so I think that StFX has, maybe not in a direct path, but in a roundabout way, has been part of that journey of having those influencers and those positive kinds of messages and examples and experiences that have influenced me and have helped me sort of come to a point where I see the work that I’m doing as part of a broader community development piece.