Lessons from Unexpected Teachers
Reflections on our first-ever all-Indigenous Pre-Employment Welding Program
By Vinette Kooger, CCDC Coordinator
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you had.” – F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
This summer, the CLAC Career Development College (CCDC) revitalised CLAC Training’s Indigenous Community Initiative and generated our first ever Pre-Employment Welding Program for Indigenous students.
Our intent was to create new career pathways for Indigenous youth through supportive, community-oriented programs.
Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing demographic in Canada, with the youngest average age of all groups. Industry does itself a disservice by inadvertently upholding situational and environmental barriers that keep Indigenous youth from thriving in the skilled trades—especially as we are facing a current and future shortage of skilled workers.
As the CCDC coordinator, I was tasked with developing the program, and was immediately confronted with the realities and importance of resilience and hope in the face of much tougher conditions than the ones I grew up in.
At the outset, I grappled with whether to run this program, worrying that our intentions might come across as performative. But as the program draws to a close, these worries no longer occupy my mind, because of what I’ve learned from these students.
Programs like this require consultation and a communal strategy on effective approaches. So I met with community leaders and asked the class what educators and industry should learn about running Indigenous community programs.
The most frequent and helpful comment was the importance of listening to communities first. Indigenous students are frequently offered training and career programs. But what makes our program different? What makes CCDC’s program the right fit?
Students feel seen. They receive meaningful coaching throughout the program and create lasting relationships with instructors and administrators who can advise and guide their careers after graduation.
How did we go about creating this atmosphere? We learned that providing weekly meals and taking time to foster classroom relationships makes a difference, especially for students who relocated to take this training. Our program is only twelve weeks long, but by week three the students were sharing lunch together and heading to study groups after school.
An unexpected hurdle was learning and understanding the realities Indigenous youth face. Indigenous communities experience higher and younger mortality rates, lower access to transportation, and less stable housing and income than the general population. Being unprepared to cope with these realities discourages and fails our students. A pay-as-you-go phone plan, access to counselling resources, or some bus tickets were all simple supports we provided so our students could continue to graduation. We learned these accommodations, and most importantly, conversations, built strong bridges for students to come back from a tough week.
Consulting community experts and youth, and adopting their strategies to recruit, train, and retain talented Indigenous trades professionals is an important solution to enrich our workforce and address our current and future shortage of skilled trades workers.
Our Indigenous student cohort will officially graduate on September 29, and fears of inauthenticity and performance activism no longer distract me. The perceptions and opinions most valuable to me are those of students and their communities. I am so proud to congratulate each one who is graduating. These students have a real shot, and they are determined to take it.