It has frequently been suggested by a variety of folks that one of the most significant challenges for Aboriginal youth in contemplating their future is that all too often they have little or no opportunity to become involved in the economy.
A group of 73 Aboriginal youth from around the province were intently listening to one of the presentations of a two-day entrepreneurial workshop being offered at the University of Saskatchewan campus.
This is the second annual gathering in which students participate in workshops, activities and presentations to sell their respective products after having coming up with a business plan.
Sponsored by Affinity Credit Union, this initiative is a direct result of the efforts of former Prime Minister Paul Martin. His family launched the program for grades 11 and 12 Aboriginal youth in 2008 in an effort to bridge the gap, and since then the number of participants, and ultimately retention rates, have reached new levels in Saskatchewan.
Yves Bousquet, a former elementary school principal in Saskatoon, is the education program coordinator in Saskatchewan. He has seen the growth since becoming involved three years ago and said it’s clearly evident today how much better the students are prepared when they attend the sessions.
“It’s wonderful to see the level of engagement the students have, and they are passionate about this because they see a purpose behind it and they can relate.”
Elaine Favel is a former physical education teacher from Île-à-la-Crosse, who attended the event with students from Rossignol High School.
She has been involved with the program for four years now, adding that when she was approached to try something different, “I jumped at the chance because it’s challenging and right away you could see the connection for our kids.
“It has made a real impact for these kids and we’re still finding it when new students become involved. They want to be here and they see the purpose and that means motivation.”
Bousquet and Favel agree that one of the keys to the success of the program is that the curriculum content has been written by Indigenous people and is based on the teachings of Elders to a large extent.
As Bousquet succinctly offered, “it’s all about finding the right people to develop the program and to understand what these young people are looking for in order to make the connection.”
Favel added that, in her case, she utilizes local Elders twice a week at the school, and they are invaluable in assuring that the First Nations and Métis culture is embedded in the lessons.
“We’ve made great strides, because before this any partnerships were few and far between. Now we’re able to bring together local entrepreneurs and that makes a real connection for the students and they realize ‘why can’t I be like that person too’,” she offered.
According to Bousquet, that connection aspect is critical while also stressing the need to make the course challenging and fulfilling.
“Our Indigenous people have not really been invited to participate in the economy, and so when Mr. Martin launched this program he wanted to provide that opportunity. And with the resources we have received from Affinity, for example, it creates the opportunity to make this happen and students can learn about a lot of things right in their own schools. It’s been great to see how they are helping and supporting each other.”
Favel said she has personally witnessed the transformation when often very shy students develop the confidence necessary to survive in the business world.
“Just their willingness to take part and to get up and speak with confidence in front of people when presenting their business plan. It’s amazing how they transform themselves from those kids in sweatpants, to how confident they are when they put on a suit and realize they can do this. What I find really exciting is to watch them go beyond their comfort zone and grow.”
Bousquet indicated that while he spent 30 years in an elementary school setting, it has been quite a contrast to view high school students who are planning for their future and realizing that it can be more than just a pipe dream.
“I have students who joined the program three years ago and now they are in second year of university and doing very well. That’s part of what we are hoping for with this program, that it’s not just looking at these students, but also creating a strong sense for others that they can do this. Especially with social media now, it’s opened up so many possibilities because you don’t need to be in downtown Saskatoon with your business. You can do business with China from northern Saskatchewan if that’s what you are looking to do. That in itself creates a lot of opportunities for these young people who might want to stay closer to their home community.”
Favel added, “just the opportunity for the students to experience a facility like the university campus helps them realize that while perhaps initially intimidating, it’s an example of how they can open up their world while developing lifelong skills.”
“I’ve been amazed at the level of engagement of our students. I didn’t really have a clear picture of what this would be like, but this has definitely exceeded what I thought was possible and I’m pretty proud of our students. This is just the start because when you look at the future, it’s exciting what we can accomplish,” Bousquet said.
Favel was in complete agreement, adding that “this doesn’t stop here, and I’m really excited to see where this might be in maybe 10 or 12 years because there is so much potential for our young people and that’s huge. They see a real future for themselves in this world.”