New We’koqma’q CEO grateful for ‘big picture’

October 26, 2022

Gioia Usher says she’s thankful every day for the opportunity to learn about the challenges facing First Nations communities.

Usher, who took over as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at We’koqma’q First Nation earlier this year, says she realizes she’s in a unique situation.

“It’s nice every day to have the ability to learn (about life in First Nations communities),” she explains.

“When people talk about reconciliation, this job feels like steps towards that,” Usher adds. “When I go home at the end of the day and I’ve worked on a project in the community, or you see a community member take advice and do something with their career, or whatever it is that I’m able to have a hand in and see it play out for the betterment of the community, it feels really good.”

The 29-year-old Usher was first hired in February 2020 by We’koqma’q as a financial analyst. Three months later, she took on the job of Chief Financial Officer. When the former CEO retired in January, she assumed that role. She says it’s been an adjustment moving into her new job.

“Now I’m making decisions that affect everything versus decisions that maybe affect money or the finance side,” she notes. “So that was an interesting change. More big picture.”

Usher, who grew up on a hobby farm in D’Escousse, Richmond County, received her accounting degree from St. F.X. University and earned her Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation in 2017 while working with Ernst and Young in Halifax.

“At that time, a lot of my colleagues were moving to Australia and Denmark and doing all these exciting things,” she recalls. “When I said I was moving back (to Cape Breton), I got a lot of crazy looks.”

“It’s easier to buy a house in Cape Breton, it’s easier to enjoy a slower pace in Cape Breton, and I think knowing that I had a CPA designation to fall back on it took the employment worries out of the equation too.”

Usher went to work for Grant Thornton in 2018, based out of offices in Port Hawkesbury and Sydney. She now lives in Baddeck with her husband, Kyle Usher who, incidentally, now fills her old role as CFO at We’koqma’q.

“It was really a lifestyle change,” she says. “Looking back on it, it was one of the best decisions I made because now we have a house. Some of my friends who lived in Halifax, they can’t even afford to buy a one-bedroom condo anymore. So, it really set us up for a really well-balanced life at an early age.”

Working as an accountant in a more rural setting also provided a unique career opportunity.

“It was an interesting change going from Ernst and Young, where we worked on a lot of public companies, to moving to Cape Breton with Grant Thornton where the clients are much smaller, private, more mom-and-pop shops,” she explains. “I just didn’t get that with Ernst and Young, so it was a really nice way to round out my experiences in accounting.”

During her time at Grant Thornton, she had the opportunity to work with a number of First Nations communities in Cape Breton, so that prepared her professionally for her move to We’koqma’q.

“It’s interesting to feel such a sense of community. Every decision is made community-first. Everything, at the end of the day, comes back to the community. So, it’s figuring out ways to be creative and inventive to either sustain that community or drive the economy of that community in absolutely every decision.”

Usher gained some media attention in the past year for her efforts to grow the sport of fly-fishing among women. Having started out fishing with her father, Jeff Stanley, when she was growing up, she began getting requests from ther women asking her how to get into the sport.

“I started guiding because of the number of women who were reaching out to me because they felt they connected with me as a woman or beginner,” she says. “So after quite a few requests…I decided to get my guides’ license to help get more women into the sport.”

This would have been her third year as Cape Breton’s only female fishing guide. But her new job no longer affords her the time.

“After I took on the CEO role, I found myself doing less and less of it,” Usher says. “I’m really grateful that (women’s fly-fishing) has got some popularity. It’s nice that people want to know the story. But at the same time, it’s really very difficult to do both. I fish for myself mostly now.”

While she’s given up the guiding, she’s still working with a good number of women, including Annie Bernard Daisley, who has served as chief since 2020. In fact, seven of the departments overseen by Daisley and council members are headed by women, including Health, Education, Human Resources, Social, Daycare, Employment and Training, and One Stop/Gaming.

“We’koqma’q is a very supportive environment for any individual looking to develop skills and pursue a career,” she says. “Working with the chief is great. We each have unique skill sets which complement each other, so we are a good team.

“She is a smart woman with a business-focused mind which makes it easy to collaborate on special projects which better serve the community.”