Helping the Haisla to adapt

June 23, 2005, vol. 33, no. 5
By Diane Luckow

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SFU is involved in a visionary plan to help the First Nations Haisla people of Kitamaat village in northwestern B.C. to transform their community's economy.

The small, picturesque and isolated village on B.C.'s northwest coast is surrounded by coastal mountains. Its 750 residents, whose median age is 36 years, have difficulty finding employment because they often don't have the education they need to compete for jobs with local companies.

The result is an unemployment rate of 60 per cent, or 10 times the national average.
Steve Wilson, elected chief counsellor of the Haisla Nation, says his village wants to regain the self-sufficiency and the industrious attitude they had before becoming dependent on government programs and welfare. “We have tremendous opportunities but to realize those, we have to change,” he says. “To do that, we need a catalyst for change.”

To begin the long process to address the cumulative issues associated with chronic unemployment, the council has created the Haisla business and development corporation.

Wholly owned by the Haisla community, the corporation is developing partnerships with established companies like Triumph Timber and has asked SFU to help build its capacity for change.

For the past three years, SFU business' learning strategies group (LSG) has been working with the village council to assess people's educational needs and then devise and deliver customized training programs.

The training is a cornerstone of the village's blueprint for transforming its economy. “The village council wants to empower its own people through education,” says Shannon Hobson, LSG's program director, First Nations Initiatives. “Nothing to this scale and with this approach has ever been tried before - it's the first program where we listen to the community and really implement according to their needs, rather than just bringing a program to them.”

With the right mix of education and training, the village council plans to develop businesses and jobs in fisheries, forestry, and tourism in partnership with nearby companies that include Alcan, Eurocan, Triumph Timber, Cormorant Seafoods and Cascadia Materials Inc.

“SFU's involvement in this process opens some doors that would otherwise be closed,” says Wilson. “That includes access to funding opportunities and to other academic institutions. It also adds to our credibility.”

Already, LSG has established a work readiness program for potential entry-level workers who may have been away from the workplace for a while, inexperienced youth and those who are chronically unemployed.

“The key is to get them trained for real jobs, not just theory,” explains Hobson. Training, delivered in partnership with other colleges and institutes, includes job skills such as heavy equipment operation, as well as courses related to job seeking and interview skills, resume writing, computer skills, interpersonal skills, even driving lessons. LSG is also setting up apprentice programs with nearby companies and planning leadership courses for band leaders and council members. Other training programs will be directly related to the employment created by the council's joint ventures with local corporations.

“We're adapting to modern times,” says Wilson. “I think we've attracted the right people and partners so I think our vision - which is full employment and less dependency on government intervention - is very achievable.”

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