| Breaking cultural barriers

Aboriginal employment in Montreal

Aboriginal peoples don’t really have it easy in Canada. Problems like unemployment and high school dropout rates prevent them from fully merging into society, and fueling the promotion of cultural and societal isolation. Movements like Idle No More, highly visible in the past few months, have attempted to shed light on and rectify some of the problems facing the Aboriginal community. These problems include various forms of structural discrimination that Aboriginal communities face on a daily and lifelong basis.

However, like all communities, indigenous communities do not speak with a single voice, and many choose not to focus on a narrative of marginalization. A great example of this was the March 22 Aboriginal employment fair, MAMU! Ensemble! Together!, which brought together Native organizations, employers, and others to focus on incorporating Aboriginal peoples into Montreal’s workforce.

Held at the Université du Québec á Montreal (UQAM), the event largely struck a positive note, interspersing talks from employers and Native organizations with music, games, and food. Partners included the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network, the City of Montreal, Service Canada, and Concordia University, among others. While targeted at Aboriginal youth ages 16 to thirty, the event drew members of the Native community of all ages, with approximately eighty to 100 people in attendance, according to Geronimo Inutiq, one of the event organizers.

Inutiq elaborated on the goals of the fair, pointing out opportunities for networking and community. “It’s important for us to show what’s available to our community and to create opportunities for networking with the different organizations and individuals who are on the market.” he told The Daily.

When asked about structural problems facing the community, however, he noted that the event was designed to focus on the positive rather than the negative. “I don’t want to really get into the sob story or sad story about the problems within the community, but there are certain realities that Aboriginal peoples have to face collectively,” he said. “By having an event like this, we’re giving ourselves positive tools to address that problem and an opportunity to create those bridges with the rest of society, to prove that we’re actors in society, not just within our communities but within Canada and Quebec at large.”

“We have a lot of talent and there’s a lot of potential within our communities, so we just want to create those bridges,” he added.

Filling in the gaps between education and unemployment

However, despite the positive tone of the event, significant problems facing aboriginal communities remain, namely, access to education. This problem has lasting implications: only 17 per cent of Montreal’s Aboriginal male population has a university degree. Montreal’s Aboriginal community as a whole has an unemployment rate 1.4 per cent higher than that of the general Canadian population, according to the most recent census by Statistics Canada.

Pierre Lainé, Student Affairs and Recruitment coordinator at Kiuna Institution, elaborated on the problems facing Aboriginal students in institutions of higher learning. Kiuna is a CEGEP dedicated to Aboriginal students, and the only one of its kind in Quebec that runs a First Nations-centric humanities program.

The program, according to Lainé, incorporates an Aboriginal viewpoint into all its courses. This is particularly important for courses like history and anthropology, which typically refer to Aboriginal history without incorporating the perspectives of First Nations peoples, or if they do so, only in passing reference. The difference, Lainé explained, is striking. “In a general portrait, the Aboriginal dropout rate is between 60 and 70 per cent,” he told The Daily in French. “Our mission is to offer a secure place, where students will feel good.”

Kiuna, a young institution, is about to graduate its first round of students. Its student dropout rate rests at around 8 per cent – an “interesting gap,” according to Lainé, with the previously quoted provincial rate that can be attributed to a sense of belonging within the institution.

“It’s certain that when [Aboriginal] students arrive in other institutions, they are…minorities,” Lainé said. “You don’t necessarily have specialized services for such a small minority of students. They try to identify themselves and fall into the rhythm of these institutions, which isn’t always easy.” Contributing to this problem, he said, were elements such as distance, a lack of resources, and a lack of support for Indigenous students.

How much can one fair do?

Ultimately, an employment fair may not be enough to rectify this gap, nor solve the various interdependent problems facing Aboriginal communities in Montreal, such as homelessness, lack of education, limited French-speaking skills, and of course, unemployment. However, the importance of an opportunity for professional networking and community building should not be overlooked, nor should the need for a positive outlook.

“It’s definitely a start, considering all the challenges we have within our community,” said Inutiq. “We need all the support and encouragement we can get. I think this is a great opportunity to give that encouragement within the community.”

Some attendees spoke about the pressing need for a working knowledge of French in order to break the “glass ceiling,” a problem common to many Aboriginals seeking employment in the city. “It’s necessary to be bilingual to find some kind of stability,” said one attendee in French. Others praised the networking opportunities available at such events while describing their experience working with Aboriginal employment organizations.

“For young Natives like myself, there’s a lot of opportunities out there, and we don’t even know,” said Steve, another attendee. “If it wasn’t for this program…they hooked me up with a job at a clinic and now I help small children. I’m going to pursue that.”

Another attendee and Aboriginal activist, Mikayla Cartwright, stated that, “Because of the First Nations human resources, I [found work] at the botanical gardens in the First Nations garden, which also involved [receiving] a lot of cultural sensitivity training.”

“I have gotten a lot out of my involvement with the Aboriginal community in this city, because I’m detached from where my family is from,” Cartwright went on to say. “My personal adventure with my culture is being involved with the urban community as much as possible, and doing whatever I can to foster better relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”

The networking and educational opportunities available at events like these should not be overlooked, and clearly provide very meaningful resources to Montreal’s Aboriginal community. Ultimately, the community faces an uphill battle in integrating itself into the workforce. Despite the latter, events like this coalesce around a much-needed optimistic vision for the community. They attempt to rework the mainstream narrative defining Indigenous peoples, focusing on making them the primary actors both within and outside of their communities – a change that can only be for the better.