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Internship fund aims to bring grads back to Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn Nov 21, 2019

The Cree Nation Government (CNG) recently announced a new $1 million internship fund to help bring post-secondary graduates back home with employment related to their studies. The news came at the Summit on Building Capacity for Eeyou Istchee, held in Montreal October 23-24 as part of a larger mission to encourage more Cree youth to pursue education paths that serve the regional economy.

“Our efforts to encourage our young people to successfully complete relevant post-secondary studies have become absolutely key to the future of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee,” said Grand Chief Abel Bosum at the summit. “The growth of our unique nation requires we have people trained to work in every aspect of life of our communities.”

Bosum emphasized the wealth of current and potential employment opportunities available in the territory, which will be taken by others if no qualified Crees are available. He said the CNG is striving to mobilize all Cree entities to “paddle in the same direction” towards this capacity-building objective.

“We now have the resources and ability, not only to support our youth to obtain relevant skills and education, but to eventually find the right avenue to apply those skills,” said Bosum. “We’re working together with the Cree School Board to make it more attractive for young people to return to their communities and give them a sense they are wanted and appreciated.”

This funding initiative stems from capacity-building efforts launched in 2013, which led to community tours and a comprehensive implementation strategy. Post-secondary graduates reported being unable to secure full-time employment following their studies, often due to a lack of relevant work experience.

Apatisiiwin Skills Development (ASD) will administer the fund, help graduates develop necessary employment skills and connect them with employers. They expect it will support about 15 students in its first year but don’t want to place limits on the number they can help.

“What’s unique about this program is if the opportunity isn’t available in Eeyou Istchee, the student can intern at an organization outside the territory and gain that experience,” explained ASD Director Louisa Saganash. “Once they complete their one-year internship program, we can work with the student to establish connection with a local organization and provide support for them to build their careers back in Eeyou Istchee.”

After the one-year internship, the employer has the option to retain them, with ASD’s salary subsidy covering 50% of the second year, 40% of the third and 30% of the fourth. This provides greater incentive to keep the graduates in full-time employment. For interns working down south, ASD pay their first month’s rent to help get them on their feet. 

About a year and a half ago, the CSB and ASD collaborated to develop a new position at the CSB Post-Secondary Student Services office in Gatineau. As the employment integration counsellor responsible for implementing the internship fund, Joey Georgekish has been busy acting as a liaison between potential employers and graduates.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” Georgekish told the Nation. “Employers wanting to get more information, which is encouraging to know they would be on board with a program like this to support our graduates. I have received many requests for information from students as well.”

College and university students who graduated in the last two years are eligible for the program and are invited to work closely with Georgekish to identify an internship. Georgekish’s immediate priority is communicating the program’s existence. He can be contacted through apatisiiwin.ca or the CSB’s Gatineau office.

For the CSB, this emerging capability to support Eeyou Istchee’s young adults with meaningful employment is a cause for celebration. Besides being an important step to developing a better workforce, it’s expected to be a motivating factor throughout the education sector.

“As part of our overall efforts, it’s going to make a huge difference in terms of our ability to qualify people and entice them into the positions that we need to get them into,” said CSB Chair Sarah Pash. “Also, in terms of the workplace and our entities, finding places for our graduates to go. It shows us that working from that position of strength we’ve been able to really target what we do in terms of capacity development.”

The fund comes at a time of growing interest in higher education in the territory, confirmed by preliminary results of the Adult Learning Needs Assessment (ALNA), conducted by ASD and Sabtuan Adult Education Services over the past year. According to Saganash, 39% of Cree people interviewed expressed an interest in pursuing post-secondary education.

With over 3,000 surveys collected across all communities, the ALNA’s quantitative phase is now completed. The next phase involves gathering qualitative data with a final report due next year. Pash encourages readers to contribute to the interview collection phase to improve the reliability of data.

Another piece of that puzzle is creating the necessary housing for graduates returning to work in the territory. Bosum addressed this need at the summit, outlining a new housing strategy comprised of both home ownership and social housing components. He expects the former will be ready for implementation by April 1, 2020.

“As a leader, I cannot express to you how anxious I am to support our youth in fulfilling their personal dreams,” stated Bosum. “We must work hard to make sure they will be able to apply their educations and training in the context of real jobs when they return home. If there are no big dreams, there are no big accomplishments.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.