Meet the CPA forging a new path for women

CPA Gioia Usher returned to her hometown of Isle Madame, Nova Scotia in 2017 (courtesy of Gioia Usher)

If it’s a weekend during the fishing season, you’re likely to find Gioia Usher, fly rod in hand, following the bends of the Margaree River on Cape Breton Island in search of Atlantic salmon. The 29-year-old licensed fly-fishing guide from Isle Madame, Nova Scotia, is a self-confessed fishing fanatic who grew up with her father on the Cape Breton coast. Usher, often the only young woman in the male-dominated fishing community, wanted to change that by putting women on the water. Last summer she began leading women-only fly fishing retreats on the heritage river to introduce newcomers to the sport, breaking down barriers and providing a safe space for beginners.

Her passion project Metal + Mayflies combines two meditative hobbies: fly fishing and metalwork. In the off-season, the self-taught metalsmith tinkers in her studio, forging handcrafted silver jewelry inspired by the island’s flora and fauna – chunky rings reminiscent of rugged coastlines and earthy turquoise stones inspired by the bend of a creek. “For me, both fishing and jewelry are creative outlets,” says Usher, a chartered accountant who began her career at EY in Halifax. As classmates moved to bigger cities, Usher returned to her small hometown in 2017 to work at Grant Thornton as a senior accountant.

She is now CEO of We’koqma’q First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community on Unama’ki, where she works with Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley and the Council to implement the Strategic Plan – a role that ensures the welfare of the the members of the community. “It’s a really rewarding job,” she says. The move brought with it a change in lifestyle, meaning she spent time trekking river beds and sharing her love of fishing with others.

PIVOT: WHAT’S IT LIKE LEADING BEGINNERS ON THE RIVER AND SHARING THIS KNOWLEDGE?
GIOIA USHER (GU): I am the only active fishing guide on the island and this creates demand as female anglers are the fastest growing market in fly fishing. They see me as approachable and a safe place to learn, ask questions, and get involved. As a beginner, you’ll feel more secure with someone you can identify with. It’s sometimes easier to go to a woman than another woman.

The fact is that women have always been underrepresented in fly fishing. It’s changing very slowly. I’ve met some really good friends through fishing. We fish together and don’t even doubt it anymore. But before that we would be nervous. It’s about building your support system, being confident, and realizing that you belong too.

HOW HAVE YOU INFLUENCED THE WOMEN YOU ACCOMPANY?
(GU):I still keep in touch with everyone I accompany. I guide them for the day but they call me afterwards to say ‘oh my god I caught a fish today’ or ‘I bought this new rod can you recommend what line to put on it should assemble?” They have this resource to go to. It’s more than just a day, it’s a relationship that goes on.

A group of women stand in front of a river with fly fishing rodsA 2021 Fly Fishing Expedition along the Margaree River on Cape Breton Island (Courtesy of Gioia Usher)

WHY DID YOU BECOME A CPA AND HOW DOES YOUR DESIGNATION HELPS YOU TODAY?
(GU): My godparents encouraged me to do my CPA. They always said that if you pull it off, you’ll eventually get to a point where you can use those skills to do whatever you want in any business organization you work in — and it doesn’t have to be accounting. Now when I go to work it’s more about thinking strategically and working with people to make things happen than sitting behind a desk typing in the numbers. That feels really good because it’s something I really wanted to do.

WHAT IS A TYPICAL WORKDAY AS A CFO LIKE AND HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE RESPONSIBILITY IN SUCH A MEANINGFUL POSITION?
(GU): In the mornings I answer emails, analyze financial information and think for myself. Here I am particularly grateful for the skills I acquired as a CPA – they give me a head start and a basis for all upcoming decisions. I typically spend the rest of my day in meetings—whether it’s a regularly scheduled Chief and Council meeting, discussions with a potential business partner, or an internal meeting to review progress on a specific goal.

I am grateful every day for the opportunity to serve this community by trusting, listening and learning from the dynamic team at We’koqma’q. I have learned that helping one another is an important element of the Mi’kmaq culture and it has resulted in a very supportive work environment where we achieve our goals as a team. We take responsibility together and rely on our unique individual skills. I also look up to Chief Annie. She was the first elected female chief in We’koqma’q and is a great role model for women in leadership positions.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO METALWORK AND JEWELERY MAKING?
(GU): I’ve always liked doing things. My father likes to do knife work and work with old metals, which encouraged me. I think jewelry was a natural progression from something metal based but with a more feminine twist. I didn’t want to make a hatchet, I wanted to make something that’s pretty and I can wear it.

Fishing keeps me busy from April to October and then, in the winter months, I can put my head down and make jewelry just as a personal hobby and meditative craft. I find it a really good way to unwind from a stressful week.

HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE THAT DIFFICULT WORK-LIFE BALANCE?
(GU): Life Balance is definitely something I’ve been working on. When I lead, it’s either after work, at the weekend, or during the holidays. It’s hard not to be burned out. Sometimes I even think, gosh, I should just stop making jewelry. But I love doing it, so it’s a difficult balance. I’ve also learned that if I’m not doing these things, I’m just unhappy and I have nothing to look forward to.

When I returned to Cape Breton, I knew it was a lifestyle change. That’s what I wanted. I was working 60 hour weeks and I was burned out. I knew if I came back here my life would be different. It would allow me to do the things I wanted to do. People look at me like, oh my god, I wish I had time for this. But it’s like, well, I have great hours at work. I work hard when I’m there. I work hard on weekends and evenings when necessary. Otherwise I try to relax. Then I can go to work on Monday with a better feeling and do a good job again.

MEET OTHER CPAS MAKING AN IMPACT

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