Tag Archives: Old Ridleians

In Conversation: Michele-Elise Burnett ’86

Michele-Elise Burnett on leaving broadcasting, her Indigenous roots — and how she’s helping reshape Niagara’s cross-cultural landscape

When it comes to her Indigenous heritage, Michele-Elise Burnett ’86 is busy building bridges—and her work is helping to invigorate and reshape Niagara’s cross-cultural landscape. A proud Métis with Algonquin roots, in conversation she’s quick to laugh, wise and measured in her words, with a steady strength she credits her mother, well-known broadcaster and businesswoman, Dr. Suzanne Rochon-Burnett. Michele-Elise left a career in radio to follow in her activist footsteps, and now she’s working to find the creative platforms from which her people can speak.

“My mom was an art collector, and she would tell me that our teachings are in our art forms,” the Ridleian thoughtfully explains. “Whether it be through paintings, opera, music, or modern dance—our Indigenous artists are the ambassadors to our culture and traditions. I’m working to educate others on the power of healing through the arts, and help construct a strong cross-cultural community based on mutual and sustaining respect.”

“We’re oral people, with oral traditions, and our teachings are in our art forms—our artists are the biggest ambassadors to our culture. That’s how we tell our stories.”

To speak with Michele-Elise is to receive a lesson in conversation—but you might say it’s in her blood, coming from a heritage rich with oral traditions, and the only child of one of Canada’s broadcasting pioneers. Michele-Elise was raised in radio, her time spent playing in production studios, her world filled with music, talk and entertainers. Her father, radio-station owner Gordon Burnett, served two terms as President of the Juno Awards, and brought country music to life in Canada. In 1992, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame as one of the founding members of the Country Music Awards.

“I always knew I’d go into broadcasting,” she says, looking back. “I loved that you weren’t at the mercy of the size of a screen—you had to think outside the box to be able to paint pictures with only words and sound.” In 1996, after graduating from Ryerson University’s Radio, Television & Film programme, Michele-Elise and Suzanne took over the radio station and launched Spirit 91.7 FM, a hard-won battle that followed two gruelling years spent in and out of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The women proudly became the first Indigenous people in Canada to be granted licenses by the CRTC.

“I always knew I’d go into broadcasting. I loved that you weren’t at the mercy of the size of a screen—you had to think outside the box to be able to paint pictures with only words and sound.”

Before her mother passed in 2006, she entreated her daughter to take over where she left off, to continue sharing the deep-rooted beauty of her people’s culture and traditions through the lens of art. Michele-Elise was heartbroken by the loss. Suzanne was highly decorated and revered in the community, named to the Orders of Canada and Ontario, a founding member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, and the first woman to be inducted into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame. But she was also Michele-Elise’s best friend, her mentor and teacher.

When Michele-Elise left the business two years later, there was no set plan. “In the radio industry, I knew who I was. I lived a great life,” she shares. “But I still have pain. I still carry the pain of my mother, my grandmother, my ancestors. I just knew that I wanted to bridge people together, to find those platforms that would give our people a voice.”

“My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” — Louis Riel

And, over time, the plan came into focus. Michele-Elise now develops projects that are transforming the Niagara’s understanding of Indigenous people—and, looking forward, she’s determined to bring those projects to life across the country.

She officially relaunched Kakekalanicks, the consulting company her mother had started back in the 1980s, which helped champion and sell Indigenous art pieces all over the world. But where her mother focused on visual arts, Michele-Elise takes a multidisciplinary approach, working to promote and educate people about Indigenous ways of life on stage, in outdoor spaces and in classrooms nationwide. The company now supports many of the area’s cultural projects.

Joining forces in 2014, she and business partner, Tim Johnson have since worked together to develop arts and educational programmes across the Niagara region. Projects include the Indigenous Cultural Map—an online resource which brings to life historic and cultural locations along the Niagara Escarpment through artistic expression; the Celebration of Nations event—an annual gathering of Indigenous arts and culture; and Landscape of Nations 360°—an ambitious not-for-profit which works to create, design and implement educational and expressive arts programmes to help transform public understanding of Indigenous peoples.

And Niagara has been quick to respond. In 2018, Michele-Elise won the GNCC Women in Business Cultural Arts Award for her work with the Celebration of Nations. “It felt like I was receiving this on behalf of our artists, our knowledge keepers,” she recalls, honoured to be amongst so many accomplished women. “To have Niagara honour an Indigenous person was heartwarming—because without our community behind me, nothing happens. Things are shifting.”

“I’m working to educate others on the power of healing through the arts, and help construct a strong cross-cultural community based on mutual and sustaining respect.”

The pair is now working on a new project called Empathic Traditions, a virtual museum created in partnership with the Niagara Falls Historical Museum which will teach people about the region’s rich history. “Before contact, the different chiefs would come to Niagara’s ‘Thundering Falls’ to discuss what was going on in our nations on Turtle Island,” she says, using the name used by many for North America. “It was a migration path for millennia. We’ve found artifacts in Niagara dating back 13,000 years.”

A Brock Board of Trustees member and co-chair of the Aboriginal Education Council, Michele-Elise is also working closely with the school’s inaugural Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement, helping to develop plans for the years to come. “It’s a moment of change,” Brock President Gervan Fearson said in an interview with Brock News. “We’re building an institution that’s inclusive of all peoples—and in particular Indigenous communities.” The university now proudly flies the Two-Row Wampum flag, gifted by Michele-Elise and Tim, and the campus roundabout has been named “Suzanne Rochon-Burnett Circle,” and a scholarship given in her name.

“We need to always think about how things are going to affect the next seven generations: How will doing this or that affect my family? Am I being a good ancestor? Will they thank me for it? Everything we do today will impact everything we do tomorrow—and when you have this philosophy in mind you will do things differently; you will think and not simply react.”

The first training programme of its kind in Canada, the Landscape of Nations 360° Indigenous Education Initiative is going into its third phase, developing a framework for essential understandings about the region’s Indigenous peoples, aimed at educators across the Peninsula. “We in Niagara are the inheritors of a profound story involving many of the Indigenous nations,” Michele-Elise explains, hoping to expand the programme country-wide. “But students have been taught with materials which leave them with no understanding of the world-changing achievements of our ancestors. Policy decisions that negatively impact Indigenous, Inuit and Métis people—these deficiencies result, in large part, from a lack of education beginning in grade school.”

The impressive programme, which aims to soon rollout these materials in classrooms, has been eagerly taken up by schools across Niagara—including ours. This past year, four teachers from Ridley participated in the training sessions. For Michele-Elise, working to bring Indigenous history and culture to its familiar classrooms is a natural fit.

“We’re a Ridley family,” she laughs, sharing that they’re building a memento-filled ‘Ridley Room’ in their new house. “I was no longer a minority when I went there,” she explains. “There were so many different cultures and backgrounds; I was just like everyone else, all raised under the same Ridley roof.”

“To now be working with Ridley and collaborating on LON 360° is incredible. It’s family.”

One of the few women on Ridley’s U.S. Foundation Board, Michele-Elise has been an integral part of our community for years, whether serving on the Marketing Committee (now Advancement Committee), on the Board of Governors, or launching the Women of Ridley—a group where like-minded alumnae can reach out for mentorship and support.

“I was one of the few single mothers. It was difficult, at times, and led me to think about how we can help other women, other alumnae, who are now doing the same.”

She dreams of one day establishing a Women of Ridley scholarship. When Michele-Elise had children, it was important to her that they attend Ridley, which provided her with the discipline, global mindset, and friendships she still has to this day. “But I was one of the few single mothers,” she remembers. Her children, Zander Burnett Metz ’12 and William Louis Reich ’19 both graduated from Ridley. “It was difficult, at times, and led me to think about how we can help other women, other alumnae, who are now doing the same.”

And, as the region continues to embrace its Indigenous history, our school one of many eager to incorporate a rich and little-known past into its future, Michele-Elise’s commitment to her community only deepens, the footprints on the path her mother travelled now shared by her own steps.

“My people will sleep for a hundred years,” Métis leader Louis Riel predicted more than a century ago, a quote that’s close to her heart. “But when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” For Michele-Elise, who has long recognized the need to rouse us all—be it by brush, on stage, or in the classroom—the voices of our past are growing louder, and the stirrings of these lands are coming to life once more. It’s time to wake up.

This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.

Ridley Carries On: 130 Years of Resilience

“If there’s anything our school’s history has taught us, it’s that these are the moments when fresh, new ideas are born, moments when we, together, rise to the occasion.”

As the world faces one of the largest global crises on record, one can’t help but reflect on our school’s history. From the Springbank House fire in 1903, to world wars, economic turmoil, and more, Ridley has, quite literally, risen from the ashes through more than 130 years of unexpected plight. Though it may feel as though the COVID-19 pandemic has dented our amour, we know our school will once again prove its resilience and persevere in the face of this significant event.

We’ve flipped through our anthologies to illustrate the major crises and challenges Ridleians have overcome.*


Springbank House Fire (1903)

It was a cold October morning when students were roused from their sleep by shouts of “Fire!” The boys jostled each other to get outside, grabbing a random assortment of belongings in their haste, as the fire-bell rang in their ears. They stood under the street gaslight, answering, one by one, as Headmaster J.O. Miller called the roll—thankfully, all were accounted for. By the time the firemen arrived, it was clear the building would be completely destroyed; spurred on by the wind, the fire had raced along the attic before turning its attention to the main school building. The firemen concentrated their efforts on protecting the adjacent houses, and what belongings could be saved were piled on the street and in the headmaster’s backyard. The Upper School students watched, helpless, as Ridley collapsed before their eyes.

Springbank House Fire (1903)
Springbank House Fire (1903)

But those who knew Miller, knew that he would not give up on his beloved school. The loss of the Springbank building, though devastating, only spurred on in him a determination to build the school he’d wanted all along. Boys were temporarily rehoused, and within a month of the fire, everything was relatively normal in the academic programme and general activities; there was even a gym of sorts. Miller got to work finding and securing funds to build a brand-new Upper School and chapel on the same land as the Lower School—finally bringing the schools together on the Western Hill in 1905.

“Those who knew Miller, knew that he would not give up on his beloved school. The loss of the Springbank building, though devastating, only spurred on in him a determination to build the school he’d wanted all along.”


The First World War (1914-1918)

When the Great War broke out, Old Ridleians immediately enlisted in military services, and the school was filled with the spirit of patriotism. But what started out as a feeling of adventure—the sound of marching infantry, bands playing martial music in the streets, and students filled with the rightness of the cause—by 1916 became grim, the realities of war all too real.

The Acta Ridleianas of the era published obituaries of Ridley’s dead, their names and photographs raised on panels along Chapel walls. Tributes also went up celebrating those who were decorated for valour and leadership. Students donated pocket money to social appeals, war relief funds, and hospital wards; and the boys held a minstrel show to raise money for the cause.

Ridley Cadet Corps
Ridley Cadet Corps

They were told it was their duty to perform well at school, and the students took it to heart. They found solace in music; the Glee Club was restored, concerts held, and the gymnasium was, on occasion, converted into a motion-picture theatre, where it would be filled with laughter at the slapstick comedy of film stars like Charlie Chaplin. On the ice, the hockey team was filled with a formidable fierceness, finishing the season with 16 victories.

“By the end of the war, the school had won a high place in public regard, and the mood on campus was one of confidence—that of a firmly established institution ready to grow and expand.”

Canada lost 61,000 lives in that war, more than half of Ridley’s 800 graduates were in active service, and of them, 61 died. The Old Boys proposed a chapel in honour of the Ridleians who had lost their lives and raised nearly $50,000 by the spring of 1919. By the end of the war, the school had won a high place in public regard, and the mood on campus was one of confidence—that of a firmly established institution ready to grow and expand. Canada’s attitudes toward school and higher education grew with it; the number of applications for admittance to Ridley rose.

The Memorial Chapel
The Memorial Chapel

Recession (1922) in the midst of Spanish Flu Pandemic (1918-20) & Encephalitis Lethargica Pandemic (1915-26)

The war years, and those that followed, were plagued by worries for health, as the Encephalitis Lethargica pandemic—a curious brain-attacking disease which left its victims still as statues, in a zombie-like state, or dead—raged worldwide.

During those same years, the Spanish Flu pandemic swept the globe, killing millions. In an effort to prepare for what they worried would soon come to campus, Ridley’s governors approached architectural firm, Sproatt & Rolph to plan an isolation hospital. Construction began behind Dean’s House that September, and the new hospital was dubbed “The Pest House” by its first patients.

By October, as many as 60 boys had fallen ill. The most serious cases were reserved for The Pest House, the dorms converted to hospital bays for the overflow. Football season was disrupted, and a 10-day holiday decreed in late October to help reduce human contact. Though Ridley lost one member of its faculty and one nurse, no student died during the pandemic—a testimony to the skill and care of its medical staff. The Pest House continued to serve as an isolation hospital until the Schmon Hospital opened in 1947. With increased enrollment in the decades that followed, The Pest House was converted into a residence and renamed Governors House.

The Pest House
The Pest House

The Great Depression (1928-1932)

By 1931, as Canada’s industrial and trade situation became more desperate, it was soon evident that Ridley could face a serious crisis. By fall 1932, enrollment had plummeted, and many questioned the wisdom in building the new dormitory (which would become Merritt House). Old Boys attending the annual meeting that December were worried about the cost of the forthcoming build. Though they acted confident, Ridley’s principal and governors knew the only way they could justify the spend was to find new boys to fill its dormitories.

“We can only assume that a number of Ridley families made great sacrifices to keep their sons at the school.”

Old Boys were challenged to get to work as recruiters, and by the next fall, all heaved a sigh of relief when 27 new students started at Ridley. On campus, students became increasingly interested in current events, absorbed by questions of government, capitalism, and the various ‘isms of communism, pacifism, and fascism being debated around the world. Nevertheless, school spirit remained strong and, as early as 1933, enrollment began rising again.

Only one or two boys were withdrawn for economic reasons during the Depression, indicating that Canadians considered education important enough to be one of the last expenses to be eliminated. We can only assume that a number of Ridley families made great sacrifices to keep their sons at the school.

The Second World War (1939-45)

Still raw from the toll of The Great War, by the time the Second World War broke out, the hundreds of Old Ridleians who reported for active service did so with eyes wide open. Gone were the adventurous spirits of 1914; these men knew what it meant to be at war. Graduates of 1940 left the Prize Day presentation table went straight to the fighting forces. Many seniors didn’t even stay to graduate.

For Ridley, the war threatened to be an enormous burden; the school lost staff and students, had difficulty getting supplies, and there were problems of families divided. The mood amongst students was one of defiance, peppered by the occasional fierce display.

“During the span of the war, the administration recognized the great advances being made in industrial technology, and of the worldwide move toward science. Ridley got on board, creating the strongest physics and science staff they could assemble in order to adapt to the impending age.”

Though it was hard to concentrate—for both students and teachers alike—academic rigour was still upheld, and the boys were active in debate, public speaking, music, drama, and athletics. The new Iggulden Gymnasium revolutionized the school, the perfect site for performances and plays, and the state-of-the-art space made way for activities and sports beyond the traditional trio of football, hockey and cricket.

At the end of the war in 1945, a gesture to commemorate the dead, similar to the Memorial Chapel, was desired by all, and the Memorial Hall was planned. During the span of the war, the administration recognized the great advances being made in industrial technology, and of the worldwide move toward science. Ridley got on board, creating the strongest physics and science staff they could assemble in order to adapt to the impending age.

Recession (1950) and the Korean War (1950-53)

People had not yet recovered from the Second World War, when the Korean War broke out, and active service loomed yet again for Ridley’s seniors. The Cadets received new attention, now looked upon to train Canada’s soldiers of the future. A lavish provision of supplies filled the gymnasium’s armory with guns, rifles, drums, bugles, and signal radio equipment; the Cadet Bugle Band was upgraded with new artillery trumpets, cymbals and bell lyres. School time was spent on military training, able-bodied young men prepared to enlist for Korea or any other areas of conflict.

The numbers of Ridleians who were serving were troubling: 14 Old Boys were in the Canadian Army; five in the Royal Canadian Air Force; seven in Korea serving with the U.S. Air Force; 12 in the Royal Canadian Navy; three in the Royal Navy; and eight serving in the U.S. Navy. Though the school’s atmosphere didn’t have the same tension that was present during the major wars before it, there was a deep anxiety about what the future would hold and where communist aggression could go. Student enrollment numbers declined as the recession tightened wallets around the country but recovered in step with the war’s ending in 1953.

A Decade of Transition: The Hong Kong Flu and the 1970s

By the time the devastating Hong Kong Flu finished in 1969, it had killed over one million people worldwide, and helped kick a recession into high gear. Like many boarding schools, Ridley saw a staggering 14 per cent drop in enrollment, brought about not only by financial woes, but by major changes the country was facing at the turn of the decade: the dismantling of the conventional family; drugs; student resistance; egalitarianism; a diversifying society, and the start of the computer revolution.

“The question of the day was on everyone’s mind: how could Ridley preserve its 80-year heritage while adapting to these new realities?

Parents were complaining, faculty and students expressed dissatisfaction, Ridley’s policies and systems seemingly out of date. The school was caught between its conservative traditions and a society which had increasingly progressive aspirations. The question of the day was on everyone’s mind: how could Ridley preserve its 80-year heritage while adapting to these new realities?

Its answer lay with a new, young headmaster, Richard Alan Bradley, fresh from the U.K., with experience leading schools that had been through similar changes. Buoyed by a willing faculty, a loyal and dedicated group of senior Prefects, and a $5 million financial campaign, over the 1970s, Bradley made changes which would pay off in the decades to come. 

Ridley goes co-ed in the 1970s.

Aware it could no longer solely depend on expanding its boarding population, Ridley welcomed day boys to the Upper School in 1972. By the early ‘70s, Ridley went co-ed—arguably the single most radical change in Ridley’s history. Bradley’s argument was not solely based on numbers; he saw it as a logical step in a world where equal opportunities between sexes were becoming a fact of life. The first girls attended the school in 1973; by 1978, 26 female boarders were welcomed to the school, along with 18 day girls. Ridley’s numbers were rising.

Post-Gulf War Economic Slowdown Leads to Recession: The Early 1990s

There was a general restlessness that occurred in the 1990s, brought in part by the economic recession. Parents were dissatisfied, students impatient. Many areas of the school were showing signs of wear, resources limited, and renovations were slower than some would have liked. Financial aid was stretched thin and, as the demand for information technology increased, concerns about what it might mean for the school increased with it. Co-ed programmes had been launched at Lakefield, Trinity and Appleby Colleges, and Ridley’s administration was uncertain what the competition would mean for its future.

“The Planning Committee assessed all aspects of Ridley life, revisited the school’s mission statement and vision, addressed school spirit, and created a blueprint that would move the school into the 21st century.

For students, things were becoming stricter. A dress coded was enforced and rules were tightening in response to a feeling amongst faculty that the honour system was being disregarded. Spirits declined as many students chafed at the new rules; seniors felt they were losing status and privilege, and everywhere on campus people seemed to complain—whether about lagging technology, long construction projects, a disappearing Old Boys system, or something else entirely.

Students needed to feel heard and Ridley needed an ongoing, focused plan—a review cycle which would examine the school’s nooks and crannies, and take into account changing environments, new technologies, competition, and new demands. The Planning Committee ensured a wide range of Ridleians were involved in the process. They assessed all aspects of Ridley life, revisited the school’s mission statement and vision, addressed school spirit and the perceived lack of student enfranchisement in Ridley’s affairs, and created a blueprint that would move the school into the 21st century.

Changes were soon made. Seniors were given more control, more time was spent on arts and activities, Chapel service was moved to a more-convenient Friday slot, academic programmes reviewed, and changes made to student schedules. And, as the calendar pages flipped toward the late 1990s, Ridley recovered its numbers. By 1998, the school population—along with its spirit—had bounced back. 


Now, another moment in time, a moment when our world feels a little off kilter, our community just a little bit raw. But if there’s anything our school’s history has taught us, it’s that these are the moments when fresh, new ideas are born, moments when we, together, rise to the occasion. Each time we’ve been shaken, we’ve stood firmer, only inspired by another opportunity to grow.

And tomorrow will be no different.


*Research gathered from Ridley: a Canadian School, by Richard A. Bradley and Paul E. Lewis.

This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.


Talent, Time & Treasure

Ridley welcomes new Director of Development, Shelley Huxley

Though we’d hoped to welcome her in person, the pandemic had other plans. So, we sat down for a virtual Q&A to learn more about the Niagara native—and get a sneak peek into what she has in store for our community. With her passion for education, strong local ties, and decades-long experience working at universities across Ontario, Shelley’s ready to hit the ground running.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I was born and raised in Niagara (specifically, Fonthill), though I left for a period of time to attend university and launch my career. After my son was born, I realized there was no better place to raise a family, so we came home. It was really important to me that my kids understand the traditions of my family and grow up with their grandparents nearby — I grew up with mine and they taught me a lot. I wanted my own children to have that same experience. Now, I live in Fonthill with my partner, Iain, my two children: Evan, who’s 16, and Nathan, who’s soon to be 12. We also welcomed a new addition to the family, a now 10-month-old Labradoodle, named Coco! We’re a busy family; the kids are involved in a number of activities, so a lot of my free time is spent supporting them.   

You’re coming to us from Brock University, where you were their Director of Alumni Engagement. Can you speak a bit about your professional background? It’s usually a circuitous route that gets you to Development. [laughs] Originally, I went to Wilfrid Laurier University to study Business—I wanted to be a floor trader. But a year into school, I realized I could spend all my time studying, or I could invest in the fulsome student experience that Laurier had to offer. I switched my major to English and Sociology and spent a lot of time doing various activities on campus and working in student government.

That’s what really set me up for my career path, because it introduced me to senior administrators, and those relationships ultimately led me to return to support my alma mater professionally—initially through communications, speech writing and working for the President—and that then led to working in alumni relations.

From there, I went on to work at Queen’s University. Queen’s was embarking on a $250 million capital campaign at the time, and I was responsible for setting up their Toronto office, working with campaign cabinet members and developing campaign strategy. I next had the opportunity to work at McMaster University—which is a big research-intensive school—where I was able to blend both alumni relations and development in my role. Five years later, I had my first child and it was then that I decided to move home. By happenstance, a job came up at Brock University and I was the successful candidate. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked in all areas of development at Brock: I started as their event planner, then as their advancement strategist, which later morphed into responsibility for donor relations and stewardship and most recently alumni relations. I’ve spent the past six years as their Director of Alumni Engagement.

What led you to Ridley—and what are you most looking forward to as you embark on this new journey? I’ve been lucky enough to work for some great institutions, so when you decide to make a move it has to be the right one, and there were a number of factors at play. The top of my list was that I would be going to a place where I felt I could make a difference, and at the same time felt that Ridley really believes in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

What I love about Ridley is its level of tradition, its strong reputation and collegiality, its dedication to education and commitment to innovation. Take the recent pivot to online learning: for any school to have done this so quickly would have been a challenge, but Ridley made the transition beautifully. These are all really appealing to me and working in development will allow me to use my skills to connect with alumni and engage donors in philanthropic opportunities. I’m really just hoping to help Ridley grow and prosper.

“Together, alumni and donors provide support, foster strong reputations, contribute to our admissions, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution.”

You obviously have some close ties to the local community. What are your thoughts about the changes taking place in the Niagara Region—and what is your approach to fostering relationships between school and community? The Niagara Region has been steadily growing both in sophistication and opportunity—particularly over the last ten years. We had a fair amount of big business exit our region, but Niagara’s response to that has been good: both Brock and Niagara College have developed programming and outreach strategies in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth. For example, their makerspaces and the programmes they’re putting in place to help businesses develop within the community have been incredibly beneficial for us as a region.

The result is that there’s a lot of opportunity for students to participate in this innovation. I find myself thinking about cultivating the student experience, about potential experiential opportunities, and finding partners for mutual benefit. How can we engage our community partners to allow students these opportunities? How can we leverage our alumni connections both within our local community and beyond?

We’re here to build the student experience, and if we’re talking about preparing them for university—particularly our upper school students—there is a lot happening in this region from which they can learn, whether in business, tourism, or through partnerships with Brock’s Performing Arts Centre, or applied opportunities at Niagara College. There are plenty of ways we can offer experiential learning.

Your experience with events, alumni and development in the education sector is certainly impressive. What is it about this work that you find so rewarding? I find it a lot of fun. Every day is different and brings with it its own challenges. I’m proud of the work we support in alumni relations and development, and in working to educate minds. And that’s what brings me back day after day: I feel I’m making a difference and contributing to the fabric of society. That’s a pretty special thing to be a part of.

Shelley is virtually introduced to Ridley team members.
Shelley is virtually introduced to Ridley team members.

Can you speak to the importance of Development and Advancement when it comes to educational institutions? Any good school works hard to build and sustain a strong reputation—and alumni and donor engagement supports that. We think about how alumni contribute: with a sense of pride, loyalty and tradition, and a deep understanding of their alma mater. They share this not only with each other but with those around them who may want to attend or support the school philanthropically.

We think about alumni, who return to the school to engage with student life; they can be really beneficial in judging where an institution might be or needs to be.  They can contribute in terms of time, talent and treasure. We think about donors, who invest in our future. Donors support an institution that knows where it is headed and the work that’s taking place now—this support is what allows faculty, students and staff to aim higher and dream bigger. Together, alumni and donors provide necessary support for our success, they help us foster a strong reputation, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution. For me, it’s all tied together: what’s happening on campus and what investments are taking place as well.

You’ve worked at a number of Ontario’s universities. In what ways do the approaches taken in higher education—in relation to development, events, community outreach, and alumni engagement—transfer nicely to an independent school setting?  The strongest similarities, I think, will be in the student experience. Some students live on campus and others off, but together they contribute to the fabric of the school. Dedicated faculty are working hard to educate, staff are supporting students and the school at large—and when an institution is collegial and respectful of its faculty and staff, students pick up on it. A strong student experience is made up of more than what is learned in the classroom; everybody plays a role, and this creates a tight-knit community. This feeling of belonging, of family, ultimately contributes to student success, because when there’s belonging, the pride and respect come along with it. And those are wonderful nurturers for life.

We have a very diverse alumni population, comprised of different generations, who may come from or be living in different geographic locations, and who represent a range of political opinions and interests. How can we reach and keep our community strong as a whole, while also ensuring that we’re meeting the different needs of the groups within it? A diverse population contributes to a healthy environment; we learn from each other and learn to respect each other’s values and principles—and these various perspectives that students learn about at Ridley will help them to navigate life. We need to encourage open dialogue and use our vast network to reach out to each other both locally and globally. We all have stories to tell, we all have perspectives to share.

But everyone’s experience is different, and we have to approach those experiences differently. I will reach out to someone who graduated three years ago quite differently than I would someone who graduated 50 years ago; we use different platforms, we respond differently because they’re looking for different things. Each alumni is important to engage and value, to listen to, and provide with opportunity to be involved. And when we do this effectively, our alumni come forward to support us, to provide meaningful input that affects change. It’s mutually beneficial.

Welcome to Ridley, Shelley! We look forward to getting to know you over the coming months and are so pleased to have you join us—we’re sure there will be a number of exciting changes and opportunities ahead! As we introduce you to Ridley faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, is there anything in particular you’d like them to know? I am really thrilled and honoured to be joining this community and can’t tell you how much I look forward to hearing from each of you about what makes Ridley so special. For now, I will say that the Development team is here to support our student experience, to provide resources for faculty to thrive in the classrooms, and to connect alumni to one another and alumni to Ridley. We’re here to support Ridley—and you—today and in the future.

Reimagining Urban Space: Brian Wannamaker ’82

Having redeveloped Portland neighbourhoods for two decades while creating living and work spaces for artists, alumnus Brian Wannamaker ’82 can be most fittingly described as a passionate ‘artpreneur.’


An Oakville, Ontario native, Brian relocated to Oregon in 1986 following his studies at Ridley and York University. He recalls not being entirely certain where his path would lead, but began saving his earnings in order to acquire property. With a strong creative compass and solutions-oriented mindset, he soon found himself working in real estate redevelopment. Brian recalls that in the early 1990s, his then business partner exposed him to art collecting, which served to reignite an appreciation he had always had for artistic expression.

”There seemed to be a wrong in the world where artists could work on their craft so hard and barely make ends meet. I just wanted to do a little bit to help these people.”

In the years that followed, Brian was drawn to reimagining properties of cultural and architectural significance around the west coast city, and eventually discovered Falcon Apartments, a diamond-in-the-rough for which he saw immense potential.

When Brian bought the property in Portland’s north end in 1997, it was a languishing, partially inhabited apartment building with low- and fixed-income tenants. However, he was able to envision how it could evolve into a hub for working artists without displacing the existing tenants. Brian felt compelled to breathe new life into the neglected building and to support the struggling tenants living within.

Soon, his plan to transform Falcon Apartments shifted from a business opportunity into a vision to build and empower an arts community. Brian came up with a value strategy to blend the higher renovated apartments rent with the existing tenants rent and the midpoint being profitable without rental increases to fixed income residents. The “cost average “ approach allowed judicious rent to existing resident and artists, while directing a portion of the market rent to support a 14,000-square-foot multi studio space in the lower level. This way, creators (painters, sculptors, musicians, writers and more) could work in dedicated studios and feel connected to a broader creative community. The building and guild of artists are now aptly named Falcon Arts Community.

“My insight for Falcon Art Community came from spending so much time living at Ridley. It’s that basic concept that you want to be around people who you enjoy being around and who you find inspiring.”

Brian recognizes that his care for the community comes in large part from his seven years at Ridley. “It’s a compassion piece that happened at Ridley; it’s about having a big enough perspective to want others to succeed,” he explains. ”There seemed to be a wrong in the world where artists could work on their craft so hard and barely make ends meet. I just wanted to do a little bit to help these people,” Brian adds, demonstrating his embodiment of our school motto.

Throughout his career, Brian has found countless innovative ways to integrate urban renewal with his passion for artistic creativity—whether he’s beautifying a stretch of Portland’s North Mississippi Avenue, leasing converted cold storage unit spaces to a general arts college, conceptualizing an inspiring venue for musicians, or as owner of the stunning Wannamaker Estate Vineyard in Washington.

When asked what advice he has for current Ridleians and youth exploring careers in the arts, Brian imparts, “I think it’s critical to learn how to be inventive…If you learn how to be a creative problem solver, that will help take you further in whichever endeavour you follow through with.”

Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger

When Tigers graduate, their relationships with Ridley don’t end; our alumni continue on as proud members of the Ridley community. For some, the connection to Ridley is so great, that they find themselves returning to campus, as faculty and staff members. You know what they say – ‘once a Tiger, always a Tiger‘.

Here are our Old Ridleians who are contributing to future generations of students:

Mike Moulden ’70
Years at Ridley: 1967-1970
Position: Senior Development Officer & Manager of Planned Giving
Favourite thing about Ridley: “A diverse family of faculty/staff with amazing students from around the world.”

 

 

Geoff Park ’80                                               
Years at Ridley: 1976-1980 (Gr. 10-13)
Position: Teacher, Department Head, Soccer Coach,  Squash Coach & Former Head of House
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The relationship between faculty and students. Because we do so much together, we know each other better and form stronger bonds that last forever.”

 

Charlene (Ebert) Hutton ’83
Years at Ridley: 1981-1983
Position: Guidance & Academics Administrative Assistant
Favourite thing about: “The community feeling among faculty and students.”

 

 

 

Paul Filion ’86
Years at Ridley: 1981-1986
Position: Teacher & Ridley College Cadet Corps No.162 RCACC Commanding Officer
Favourite thing about Ridley: “Being in the classroom with students and watching them absorb new material and watching their eyes light up is a wonderful experience.”

 

Derek Dunkley ’87
Years at Ridley: 1980-1987
Position: History & Economics Teacher
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The cultural mosaic that is our community.”

 

 

 

Jay Tredway ’96
Years at Ridley: 1992-1996
Position: Director of Athletics & Department Head – Health and Physical Education
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The opportunity for students from all over the world to come to Canada and find their niche, their special place to thrive and grow in this amazingly diverse community.”

Anjali Kundi ’97
Years at Ridley: 1993-1997
Position: Health Centre Physician
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The great memories and friends I made.”

 

 

 

 

Wendy (Crossingham) Darby ’99
Years at Ridley: 1990-1999
Position: Librarian, Archivist & Extended Essay Coordinator
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The connections. I love that I can sit down with an alum from the 40s or the 80s and we can speak the same language and have a common understanding about life.”

 

Marcie Lewis ’03
Years at Ridley: 2000-2003
Position: Grade 6 Teacher & PYP Coordinator
Favourite thing about Ridley: “My favourite thing about Ridley is the wide variety of options that we provide all students. This allows students to explore and discover their strengths, interests, and passions in academics, athletics, the arts and service.”

Alexandra Little ’03
Years at Ridley: 1998-2003
Position: Admissions Officer (International Markets)
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The connections. Over the years, I have met so many people, from all over the world, who are strongly connected to and passionate about Ridley and their experiences here. The network of Ridleians is wide, but surprisingly closely knit.”

Kenn Corfield ’03
Years at Ridley: 1997–2001
Position: Sports Attendant
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The wide selection of programs available from sports to academics to extra-curricular clubs for students – there’s never a boring day here”

 

Celeste Doucet ’07
Years at Ridley: 2004-2007
Position: Primary/Junior French Teacher
Favourite thing about working at Ridley: “The wonderful group of colleagues I get to work with every day.”

 

 

Mackenzie Fowler ’11
Years at Ridley: 2003-2011
Position: New Media Coordinator & TigerPost Supervisor
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The nostalgia. In my position, I am tasked with capturing all of Ridley’s biggest moments and brightest achievements and because of that, I get to relive some of my favourite Ridley experiences and revisit my home away from home every day of the week.”

Nick Blaikie-Puk ’12
Years at Ridley:
2010-2012.
Position: Admissions Officer
Favourite thing about Ridley: “The connections! Thanks to Ridley, I’ve been fortunate enough to have more global experiences throughout my life. I’ve made friends from around the world, both as a student and as a staff member. I continue to learn through being in such a uniquely diverse environment, sharing my stories, and creating worldly opportunities for others.”

Jacob Toms-Boudreau ’13
Years at Ridley: 2008-2013
Position: General Maintenance Assistant
Favourite thing about Ridley: “Seeing students excited about playing/using with something I helped to setup/install.”

 

 

Additional Faculty & Staff: Robert Poe ’90, Alyssa Toffolo ’14