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NEET Indigenous Youth Need Effective Education-to-Employment Programs

The EvoLLLution | NEET Indigenous Youth Need Effective Education-to-Employment Programs
Effective training programs that support pathways from education to employment are essential to supporting socioeconomic mobility for the historically underserved Indigenous populations

As Canada fondly reflects on its 153-year-old history, our collective guilt seems to be putting a dent in our ability to unabashedly celebrate our self-proclaimed pride as a global role model of human rights. It appears that our exclusion of Indigenous people from our socio-economic prosperity is beginning to cast a shadow on our bragging rights as a home to equality. If cultural genocide has its own version of a 12-step program, Canada appears to be entering a treatment centre.

But where do we start, and how can we act quickly, so we can address tragedies, like suicidal Indigenous youth and missing and murdered Indigenous women? Every life lost bears a weight on our society that reminds us that our ancestors left us with a problem that we are ill equipped to deal with.

As we relearn our history through the lens of our First Nation, Inuit and Métis neighbours, it becomes apparent that the assimilation, cultural genocide and socio-economic exclusion of Indigenous people became habit-forming when we decided to build a transcontinental railway.

From 1850 to 1890, Indigenous people in Western Canada needed to adapt considerably well to sedentary commercial economies following the end of the buffalo hunt. The history of communities like Batoche and St. Laurent in Saskatchewan show that many adapted considerably well. However, when the dream of a pan-Canadian railway became a national plan, Indigenous people were never consulted or given the same opportunities to benefit from the anticipated wealth as white citizens. Even though the socio-economic activities of those communities would have made them natural choices for the railway, smaller communities, like Saskatoon (which eventually flourished), were chosen as rail transport hubs instead.

The Riel Rebellion may have tried in vain to enshrine opportunities for Indigenous people through the Manitoba Act, but the two decades following the rebellion only demonstrated that treaties and constitutions did not necessarily translate to concrete action.

The Northwest Rebellion ensued, and Riel’s efforts to find solace in our justice system was overshadowed by a blood lust to rid the west of Indigenous influence. His hanging followed by the execution of eight Indigenous leaders, the largest government-ordered mass execution in Canadian history, provided a convincing argument to Indigenous people of the day that they could be seen but never heard.

Today, our 19th and 20th century attitudes have left us with a debt that we will continue to pay unless we can reverse our addiction to ignorance and include Indigenous people in the economic fabric of the future. Our 21st century respect for human rights married with slow yet measured judicial processes are bringing much needed change at the political level. But time spent in courts arguing on the interpretation of the Indian Act and treaties seem to overshadow what measures we need to take as a society to reduce poverty, rates of untreated mental illness and high suicide rates for Indigenous youth.

We need to entrench rights and develop strategies that invoke Indigenous inclusion as part of our government investment strategies for developing land and resources. We need to include NEET Youth (those who are Not in Education, Employment, or Training) as part of the future. We can enshrine laws and statutes if necessary, but it would far simpler if Canadians, as part of a gesture of true reconciliation, asked how we are including Indigenous people in our economic activities when we implement a new pipeline project, Internet policy or defense program? If we can’t consider how it impacts them, then let’s go back to the drawing board because history has shown that our ignorance towards Indigenous people makes us spend dollars on band-aid short-term solutions, such as social assistance, emergency interventions and limited educational systems. If we have learned anything on the journey to Canada’s 153 years, it is that our attitude towards First Nations people remains poor, and we have to treat them differently.

As Canadians’ culpability evolves from the denial stage, it is worth noting that many are proposing effective solutions; however, various degrees of disconnection and mistrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are making it a struggle to get a buy-in from everyone. For instance, in the “time is money” world of Toronto’s Bay Street, it is challenging to stop and figure out how to develop mutually profitable business opportunities with isolated First Nations people.

Therefore, our government, who supports many corporations through our tax dollars and policies, must use its purchasing powers to ensure that corporations include First Nations people in their intention to gain government contracts. For instance, if every 10th military contract was given to an Indigenous company, many bidders would seek out willing First Nation partners. In awarding contracts, the government should also consider including funding intermediary labour supply programs within the community, if the company is located on a reserve. One such program is the ATEC YouthBuild program in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba. As part of the Global YouthBuild model, this program invests in the untapped potential of youth, aged 18 to 35 who not employed or in any education or training programs (NEET Youth). It is comprised of four components:

1. Individualized learning plans based on skills and career interests

An assessment of individual youth career interests, literacy and numeracy levels, and risk indicators of substance abuse. It is worth noting that these are NOT criteria for exclusion. These simply allow educators to propose individual learning plans that address upskilling requirements and strategies for treatment and reinstatement, should a student succumb to substance issue issues.

2. Decision-making and social readiness

A social readiness program that puts decision-making into the student’s own hands. The social readiness program puts forward and respects an individual’s trauma and choices that may have led them to a dead end. It gives them the confidence to make other choices–choices that reward them with well-being, pride, additional confidence and the knowledge that they have the ability to make a difference. This program provides markers and supports as students pursue their academic and training goals.

3. Essential skills

Following the literacy and numeracy assessments that are related to specific career interests, learning plans identify essential skill programming that upgrades their skills and makes them ready to succeed with their post-secondary or apprenticeship studies.

4. Hands-on training

Relevant ‘Earn While You Learn’ and applied hands-on training is a key component for success. In apprenticeship programs, such as carpentry, the youth work on housing projects to address housing shortages in their communities. In Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, students learn how to build highly insulated SIP housing energized with solar power. These “apocalypse-proof” housing units are durable and provide cost security against increased electrical utility costs.

Other training programs include business administration programs with a focus on public finance. The goal is to reduce the number of First Nation administrations that are in third party or co-management status. In Manitoba, nearly two-thirds of the 60-plus First Nations people are in default management. These programs aim to place their financial future into Indigenous youth’s own hands.

The YouthBuild program in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation is now in its fourth year, and students have found their crucial first job at Pewapun Construction, a social enterprise established by the Atoskiwin Training and Employment Centre as a for-profit arm of the training centre. Their purpose is to provide employment opportunities for the community’s youth while converting social issues such as housing shortages into economic development opportunities.

As the first cohort of students soon completes their Red Seal in carpentry in 2021, the next step for many of them will be to complete a construction business management certificate to add to their leadership certificate, solar installer certificate and mature high school diploma, which are also included in the core program. Following completion, the aspirations are for students to take over operations of Pewapun Construction or to start their own competitive firms to thrive the desperate need to double housing in their community and resolve outstanding renovation and infrastructure backlogs.

The unanticipated outcomes of this program are numerous. At an individual level, students have bought their own vehicles and started saving to build their own homes rather than wait years for social housing units. Once they begin to build their own homes, they will reduce the burden on Indigenous Peoples who try to fund and build 20 new housing units per year to replace their decrepit and aging housing stock.

At a community level, the housing crisis is more than a ‘place to live’ issue. These poorly designed units that average 1,400 sq. ft. have become attractive to mould created by excessive humidity levels—a given when you learn that it is not uncommon to find 12 to 20 people living in each one. The stress of living under these conditions results in serious health issues, which hinders students’ ability to concentrate and learn. The solution on the horizon is that this issue will now be resolved by community members for community members rather than relying on government funding criteria that only serves to recycle opportunities for failure and despair.

With a number of new infrastructure projects planned in the community, skilled local youth can now work on these projects instead of imported labour that spends their disposable incomes far away from the First Nations. The local workforce is buying materials at the local First Nations-owned hardware store, buying gas at local First Nations gas stations and keeping their dollars circulating within the community. The result is increased demand and the creation of more local employment opportunities.

For nearly 150 years, the Indian Act has provided every opportunity to curb the resilience of First Nations people in Canada. In Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, the objective is to use that resilient spirit to reverse the intention for them and build–figuratively and literally–a legacy of survival, accomplishment, control and pride within the next two generations.


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