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Breaking down barriers for First Nations youth

The federal government is funding a new, “first of its kind” program touted as the solution for getting Chilliwack’s First Nations’ youth off income assistance.

The program, designed in part by Seabird Island Centre of Excellence, is two-fold in that it works first to eliminate the various barriers standing in the way of aboriginal youth, between the ages of 19 and 24, in obtaining employment, and then works on training the youth and transitioning them into employment.

“We looked at the barriers standing in our youths way,” said Alexis Grace, employment and social development programs manager at Seabird Island. “Then we looked at how to resolve those issues.”

The new income assistance program is funded in partnership by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Service Canada.

Each participant is funded individually to suit their needs. If they require driving lessons,  or childcare services, or tools such as a laptop to succeed in training, they’ll be provided those supports. And if they need added encouragement and advocacy on their behalf, they’ll get that as well.

“The common misconception is that most First Nations don’t want to work. But they do,” said Grace. “It’s about having the advocacy behind them, reducing barriers, and increasing the supports to help them succeed.”

For example, Seabird Island has developed an on-site driving school, including in-class instruction, free for band members. A huge benefit for the rural community that requires transportation to get anywhere.

The other First Nations communities utilizing this program, including Chawathil, Shxwowhamel, Squiala, Cheam and Union Bar First Nations, are similar.

“Driver’s licenses are a huge barrier for our youth,” said Grace.

The second part of the program is training. Clients are matched with short-term employment opportunities, no longer than 12 months, apprenticing in areas like dental assisting, medical reception, automotive or carpentry.

Seabird Island resident Rebecca Pettis has already taken advantage of the program. The young woman was given a one-year position at a local dental clinic. She had no experience, just an interest in the field. And now, she’s interested in pursuing post-secondary education to become a registered dental assistant.

“This is giving her an opportunity to gain a skill through hands-on experience,” said Grace.

“We’ve addressed the barriers of her past, and we now have her in a wonderful place where she’s going to succeed. She already knows she loves it. She won’t be going in blind opening up a textbook.”

However, the program is somewhat of a risk. Employers taking on the youth receive funding from the Work Opportunities Program (WOP) and the Aboriginal Social Assistance Recipients Employment Training (ASARET) – income assistance.

That means for the duration of the 12-month training, participating youth are not able to access income assistance.

“It was a very daunting decision,” said Grace. “Were we putting hardships on our at-risk youth?

“But when we examined that age group, we saw there was a skill and a capacity that had not yet been tapped. This is going to better their lives and the lives of their families.”

At Seabird Island, a four-year analysis of youth currently on income assistance in that age bracket, as well as 16-year-olds who are likely to seek income assistance, showed a minimum of 119 youth who could benefit from this program.

And that’s just at Seabird Island.

“It’s about creating independence and empowerment for our youth,” said Grace.

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