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Aboriginal sales manager reflects on pivotal moment

Carmen Kootoo, a sales account manager with Northwestel Inc., says landing a job with the firm more than 17 years ago allowed her to stay close to family in Iqaluit yet still develop her business skills

Ed Maruyama/© 2012 Ed Maruyama

When Carmen Kootoo landed a job in a call centre with telecommunications company Northwestel Inc. more than 17 years ago, it was a pivotal point in her life.

As the brand-new mother of daughter Andrea Gray, she was able to stay close to family in her Nunavut hometown of Iqaluit. Plus the company encouraged her to grow, sending her on courses to their Northwest Territories centre in Yellowknife and to "the south" to develop her skills.

Now a sales account manager, Ms. Kootoo is also active in Northwestel's community outreach, focused on partnering with aboriginal companies and recruiting aboriginal employees.

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"My mother was born and raised in Iqaluit and my father is from Quebec so I'm half Inuit," Ms. Kootoo says. "It's important for our work force to represent the community."

Whitehorse-based Northwestel, a subsidiary of Bell Canada, has been named one of Canada's Best Diversity Employers for 2012 – along with Calgary's Newalta Corp., an industrial waste management and environmental service company, and Winnipeg's Boeing Canada Operations Ltd., a manufacturer of aircraft components and a subsidiary of Boeing Co. of Chicago.

These employers are among those that have developed initiatives to create meaningful engagement with aboriginal communities, including recruitment, employee retention, training and skills development, often partnering with band councils, schools and community organizations. They offer a myriad of post-secondary scholarships, apprenticeships, summer student positions and mentoring to help individuals become qualified for jobs.

Key to their success has been aboriginal awareness training to educate employees about the history and culture of aboriginal people – and to debunk myths.

"Aboriginal people are very wary of who's coming from the outside," says Tom Erasmus, a member of the Goodfish Lake First Nation in northeastern Alberta and an aboriginal consultant to Newalta. "When you're engaged with first nations, don't give the message, 'We're new, trust us.' You have to put in the time and have skilled people who know how to engage. That means taking off the corporate hat and having a community spirit. Sometimes that's hard for business people to do."

While Mr. Erasmus believes training and job opportunities are important, he thinks it's even more important to partner with aboriginal groups in building businesses to become part of the bigger business world.

"Companies need to move beyond just being the employer," Mr. Erasmus says. "You have to look at the overall development challenges of aboriginal groups as well as at the culture and past issues that are still on our plate with today's society."

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Jason Bilsky, chief financial officer and vice-president of corporate services for Northwestel, advises companies to think of it as a long-term investment with the goal of ultimately becoming part of the fabric in a community. While business should understand that the benefits will come, that shouldn't be the primary focus up front. Since Northwestel's talent pool has a high percentage of aboriginal population, they have to find ways that make sense for aboriginal people to work in their company. While the lack of formal education has been a challenge, Mr. Bilsky says "it's not a gap in their smarts."

"It's almost as a paradigm shift for us as a company to get past that," he says. "We have to find these people who are dedicated to being in the North that want to be part of the team, and if we can, we're better off to grow them. We'll go to great lengths to foster that. It comes down to attitude and aptitude and less about the diploma."

Northwestel posts information about dates that are important to aboriginals on their communications networks and conducts employee aboriginal awareness training about what's important at that point in time. As well as aboriginal employees, the company also has several aboriginal business partnerships specially created to do business on their terms.

"It doesn't work if you try and treat this as a business of numbers – and I'm Mr. Business," says Mr. Bilsky, referring to his CFO role. "You need to stop, look, listen and learn. People have various lifestyles. When it's time to hunt, we absolutely accommodate that. Or if there's a death in the community, things stop. It's a different mindset than where I grew up down south."

Cathy Bain, senior manager, human resources for Boeing Canada, sees Manitoba's aboriginal work force as the key to her company's future competitiveness. The research they've done on the future shortage of labour shows that the growth rate of the aboriginal population means it will be an excellent talent pool. To foster that talent, Boeing has become partners with Red River College to develop the skills they need. Boeing hires graduates directly from the program in co-operation with the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resources Development. But there are barriers.

"Because we're in Winnipeg, people coming from up north are going to be away from their family for five months for training and need to arrange housing and support while they're here," says Ms. Bain, who is Métis through her grandmother's side. "CAHRD has put in accommodations for them, but it's a huge challenge for people. Then if they stay, they have to move away from home."

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Support is critical for those far from family and friends, often for the first time.

After losing his job at a sawmill, first nations member Robert Ogemah qualified and was accepted into the Aerospace Manufacturing Technician program in 2007. Arriving in Winnipeg from Kenora without money, he slept under bridges, eating food from garbage bins and at soup kitchens, before he managed to get a training allowance. But the harder it got, the more determined he was to finish. A full-time employee at Boeing Canada Technology since 2008, Mr. Ogemah loves what he does.

"Once people get a job with the company, there's a learning curve but they can do it," Mr. Ogemah says. "They just need a chance. We all have to open our minds and work together."

Hiring advice

"We don't just arrive at the doorstep of a community and introduce ourselves. We work with the aboriginal consultants to first tell the community who we are and what we're interested in doing in conjunction with them. Then we have an introduction with the aboriginal consultant in tow. We try to get to know them and for them to know us and ultimately engage in some business opportunities."

– Gary Willson, executive director of government affairs, Newalta

"We start with the schools, mentoring the students and bringing in our aboriginal scholarship program to help them get the education and skills that they need."

– Dalene Friesen, managing director of human resources, Newalta

"You'd be surprised how connected remote and rural aboriginal communities are. That may seem odd – technology versus traditional ways – but what they buy, how they educate themselves and communicate have become much more Internet-dependent."

– Jason Bilsky, chief financial officer and vice-president of corporate services, Northwestel

"Sometimes you give messages when you think you're not. Often big corporations say things and put out all the glossy stuff, but the message is, 'I want to do this quick because it's an advantage to me, the corporation.' And the community sits back and goes, 'Hmmm …' They don't trust you until you prove otherwise."

– Tom Erasmus, aboriginal consultant, Newalta

"As much as first nations and Métis communities have similar challenges, every community is unique in its own goals."

– Tom Erasmus, aboriginal consultant, Newalta

"You can't 'do' diversity. It has to be woven into the DNA of your company's culture."

– Dalene Friesen, managing director of human resources, Newalta

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