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Six Nations Polytechnic, a Haudenosaunee-owned and operated institution, created the STEAM Academy (standing for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). The tuition-free school combines Ontario Secondary School and Ontario College curriculums at Six Nations’ Brantford campus, creating a pathway from secondary school into college. Students begin taking college-level courses in Grade 10, and eventually graduate with a secondary school diploma and a college diploma. Here, Nicole Norris teaches a Grade 9 Geography class. (Mark Zelinski/Six Nations Polytechnic)

As big a win as LNG Canada’s just-approved $40-billion natural gas project is for British Columbia, one bit of uncertainty continues to hang over the project: Can B.C. supply enough labour for the estimated 10,000 jobs coming its way?

Kory Wilson hopes that the answer is found, at least in large part, among the province’s underemployed Indigenous work force. “It’s definitely an opportunity to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment,” says Ms. Wilson, executive director of aboriginal initiatives and partnerships for the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Vancouver.

Ms. Wilson, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, is one of British Columbia’s best-known advocates for Indigenous education. Formerly the chair of Aboriginal Studies at Vancouver’s Langara College, she has spent much of her career working to open doors for Indigenous learners at the province’s community colleges, and, in turn, its job market.

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And what happens in northern B.C. in the next few years may be a bellwether for how Canada meets one of its biggest labour-force challenges in years to come.

“We see the same statistics over and over: that Indigenous people are underemployed, earn less money, and have lower rates of educational attainment,” Ms. Wilson says. “If we’re really serious about reconciliation, it’ll take our whole society to break that cycle.”

According to a report released in 2016 by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, underemployment of Indigenous Canadians potentially costs the Canadian economy almost $28-billion annually. It also found that if Indigenous Canadians were employed at the same rate as others – and earned the same average salaries – it would put $15.3-billion more employment income directly into Indigenous Canadians’ hands.

The cost of not addressing the gap will only grow. Canada’s Indigenous population grew about 43 per cent in the decade between 2006 and 2016, about four times faster than the population at large, with 400,000 Indigenous Canadians now aged 14 and under.

That means the country’s colleges and technical institutes have a key role to play in narrowing the education and employment gap.

“Our members are located, in one way or another, in more than 3,000 different communities nationally,” says Christine Trauttmansdorff, vice-president, government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada. “Part of the reason that Indigenous education is such a big priority area is because colleges tend to be the go-to type of education for rural, remote and northern communities.”

Case in point: A joint program in refrigeration mechanics offered by BCIT, in Vancouver, and several northern partners, including the Coast Mountain School District, the Haisla Nation, and the Kitimat Valley Institute (KVI), a trades and industry-training centre in Kitimat.

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Launched last year, the program aimed to enroll at least 50 per cent Indigenous students, and was specifically developed to remove barriers of cost and location, including running the program at the KVI campus, closer to home for students. It was funded in part by B.C.’s Industry Training Authority, and the Haisla Nation Council, to reduce tuition fees.

Among the program’s students is 38-year-old Prosper Green, a member of the Nisga’a Nation. He dropped out of school in Grade 10, joining the 41 per cent of First Nations youth who don’t complete high school, according to a 2014 report by the C.D Howe Institute. His résumé in the years since has been predictably erratic, ranging from retail to roofing, asbestos removal and forklift driving. The program came at just the right time. “I was just getting deeply frustrated in my life,” he says, “bouncing all over, no direction. I have a wife, two kids, and I’d started seeing the bigger picture in a way I didn’t when I was younger.”

Mr. Green’s experience at BCIT exemplifies the kinds of accommodations many institutions are learning can be necessary for students who have a harder time in traditional academic settings. For Mr. Green, who hadn’t been in a school in more than 20 years, it was anxiety around written exams. “He was a self-starter, hard-working, but he had tremendous exam anxiety,” says Brian Buckley, BCIT’s associate dean of industrial and mechanical trades. “So the support that we gave him was we started to give him his tests orally instead of written, and his grades instantly shot way up.”

Mr. Green is now planning to get his red seal certification, a program that sets common standards to assess the skills of tradespeople across Canada, and is hunting for an apprenticeship.

But he is one among thousands – and there are far more coming up under him, many facing greater barriers.

“There are all kinds of challenges people don’t think about,” Ms. Wilson says. “People may be the first in their family to go to school. They may not have access to a credit card to pay fees online. They aren’t familiar with the systems others take for granted. And there are family challenges: higher rates of premature death, such that some students face one or two deaths of family members while studying.” And, she says, Indigenous students are on average older than others, and more likely to have family responsibilities, such as children, while studying.

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Different institutions are meeting these challenges in different ways. In 2014, Colleges and Institutes Canada launched its Indigenous Education Protocol, inviting the 130-plus colleges, institutes, polytechnics and CEGEPs it represents to sign it. So far, 58 have signed on to the protocol, which identifies seven principles for supporting Indigenous students, with practical steps including financial supports, tutoring, Indigenous student gathering places and child care.

Jean Paul (JP) Gladu, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, points in particular to the growing recognition of Indigenous-operated institutions as important players in the Indigenous education sphere. Ontario’s Six Nations Polytechnic, a Haudenosaunee-owned and operated institution, is one of nine Indigenous governed postsecondary institutions that partner with public colleges and universities in that province to offer diplomas.

Last year, the Ontario government passed the Indigenous Institutes Act, which allows the schools to award their own degrees, certificates and diplomas, and apply for grant funding. Combined, the nine institutions enrolled about 1,000 students in 2016-17. Six Nations Polytechnic President Rebecca Jamieson hopes the new act paves the way for much more.

“It creates a supportive environment where people see their culture and identity reinforced,” says Ms. Jamieson, with “teachers and educators who understand the history of the students, and can appreciate the hardships some may be going through.”

Six Nations has also created the STEAM Academy (standing for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). The tuition-free school combines Ontario Secondary School and Ontario College curriculums at Six Nations’ Brantford campus, creating a pathway from secondary school into college. Students begin taking college-level courses in Grade 10, and eventually graduate with a secondary school diploma and a college diploma.

For Mr. Gladu, bringing Indigenous people into the broader work force is a necessary step, but he hopes as well to see more attention paid to entrepreneurship, as a means of building the Indigenous economy of tomorrow.

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“A lot of people are getting skills through colleges to work in mining, forestry, resources,” he says. “Which is good, but how do we recirculate these brains back into Indigenous communities, to create our own economy and own businesses? There’s something like 43,000 Indigenous entrepreneurs in Canada, contributing more than $12-billion to the economy. We’re gunning for $100-billion.”

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