For readers who are not familiar with Canada, in 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established by the federal government, completed 6 years of an extensive and gut-wrenching inquiry into the impact of 120 years of the residential school system on our indigenous peoples (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit). The TRC followed an official government official apology for the devastating impact of this egregious system, as well as payments made to victims directly affected. The Commission concluded its process with a report that included a Call to Action with 94 wide-ranging recommendations, intended to “redress the legacy of the residential schools” and promote a path to reconciliation among residential school survivors, within indigenous communities, and among all Canadians.
The many recommendations lay out an urgent need for improvements in healthcare, education, and availability of essentials like sanitation and clean water in indigenous areas (a federal government responsibility). They include requiring access to teaching their own languages and cultural traditions within their schools. And, importantly, they include recommendations for mitigating the “inaccuracies” of prior teaching of the history of Canada, re-establishing truth in the history of indigenous people in Canada over millennia and ensuring that all children are taught of the many injustices perpetrated against our indigenous peoples, especially since the arrival of the British in the 1700s (just ask the Acadians).
How do we ensure that the work of the TRC does not go for naught? Certainly, awareness has been raised, and that is a very good thing. But broad-brush-strokes awareness and good intentions don’t do enough to change the lives of a nation’s first peoples, people who continue to live the legacy of the residential schools, general discrimination, and inadequate housing, education, and healthcare. People who often live in locations not of their own making, “resettled” by the federal government with no regard for the suitability of the location for hunting or trapping for self-sufficiency, or for being near their ancestors. The list of “challenges” is endless. The hope must be that a new awareness – and respect – on the part of non-indigenous Canadians can allow indigenous groups to reclaim and take pride in their cultural and spiritual traditions … and develop their own voice, determining a future that works for them within the Canadian mosaic.
Many of us who are not indigenous struggle with how we can help. There don’t seem to be easy answers, beyond showing respect, learning the history, and helping to raise awareness. But at least one person I know has found a way to make a tangible difference. A tangible difference in helping indigenous Canadians find their dignity and their voice. Dignity through work.
Keith McIntosh is the founder of a successful software testing company, PQA Testing, headquartered here in my hometown of Fredericton. [Full disclosure: I have known Keith since he was a first-year student in my computer science class many, many moons ago.] One of the points included in the TRC was Corporate Canada’s responsibility to help in bringing positive change for our indigenous communities. Keith took this to heart. He saw a win-win opportunity and, unlike so many of us who have some great ideas we don’t act on, he walked the talk in spades.
Keith talks about work as an agent of social change. Work brings us the money we need to lead our lives, raise our kids, and pay our bills. Thought of more broadly, though, work also provides us with independence and pride in self. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning; it cements our role as a contributor to our community. Losing your job means more than just losing your paycheck (although that is right up there). In many cases, you lose your self-esteem (maybe not so much if you don’t need the money and hated your job!). Satisfying, sustainable employment would seem to be an important component of helping indigenous people to control their own destiny. However, how easy is that when the population we’re talking about may live anywhere from inner Vancouver or Regina to remote northern Canada, from rural Nova Scotia to a First Nation in the middle of the Prairies? That challenge got Keith thinking even more.
Keith’s IT company has had difficulty recruiting enough employees to handle the work they could otherwise take on, as have many if not most IT companies across Canada, in both urban and rural areas. And, of course, the beauty of most IT jobs is that they can be done from anywhere. This shortage of IT workers is a problem that is not going to resolve itself easily, certainly not in the Maritimes with its aging, declining population. And this is where the win-win idea comes in. The fastest growing demographic in Canada is our indigenous youth. Why not provide specialized training – in this particular case in software testing – to selected indigenous young adults with jobs waiting for them at the other end? This is the formula to Keith McIntosh’s TRC contribution: to ensure satisfying, sustainable employment for our diverse indigenous population we need appropriately targeted training, a commitment from corporate Canada to provide employment once trained, and the ability to undertake the work flexibly, so that work can be undertaken in their far-flung indigenous communities.
This is where many of us would have stopped – with the vision. Keith took it further. First, in 2015, he and his partners created a training course that would prepare indigenous students for entering the workforce, in this case in software testing. They made the training program short enough that the students could see the end and took care to make the entry requirements as accessible as possible. They made the course directly applicable to the work that PQA Testing does, and then, in order to address the barrier of finding employment within the students’ communities, Keith started a new company, called PLATO. PLATO was established specifically to hire the new trainees and give them full time employment in IT. PLATO employees, 50 of them at the moment, test software for companies around the world, because of course the work can come from anywhere and be done anywhere there is an Internet connection. Work is being done for companies in Los Angeles, companies in Dublin, companies in Calgary. It is being done by employees as far afield as First Nations in rural New Brunswick and in downtown Vancouver. Everyone wins in this scenario: the companies around the world getting their work done; the students turned IT workers who gain sustainable employment within their own communities; their communities, which gain from an improved economy and new role models for their youth; and, of course, a successful and sustainable PLATO.
The expectation is that opportunities exist to expand this model to other IT-oriented, Internet-based work, potentially thousands of jobs if people – and corporations – are prepared to invest the effort and personal commitment to ensuring success. PLATO would not be succeeding without the vision, passion, and compassion of one individual. We need to encourage others to take up the challenge. Borrowing Keith’s own words from his TED-like Walrus Talk on Social Impact in Halifax this past fall (Keith McIntosh, Walrus Talk on YouTube):
“I chose to focus on engaging Indigenous Canadians. But the concept could be applied to any marginalized community. I have been approached by an organization representing unemployed coal miners in West Virginia and another working with inner city youth in New York City. An entrepreneur I know in San Francisco is teaching women in Africa and South America to do data entry tasks and bringing work from Amazon and eBay and Microsoft to their villages. In order to change people’s lives you need to do more than give charity dollars. You have to create good outcomes and change circumstances. You need to give opportunity and you have to help people take advantage of that opportunity. Albert Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. There are many government programs that will give money for training and for that I say thank you. Many companies offer to sponsor courses and mentor students and I say thank you. But it’s not enough. We have to fundamentally change the approach. I truly believe that corporate Canada takes the responsibility to help seriously but they don’t know how to engage. To corporate Canada I say, let me help you. Let me give you the opportunity and let me help you take advantage of that opportunity. What we really need is work. Real work that needs to be done. We need you to carve off a bit of work that might otherwise go offshore or to a large corporation and give it to people who just need a chance.
Honest pay for honest work brings dignity and pride.
Dignity and pride changes lives.
I’m proud to know you, Keith.
And I would love to hear from others as to ways in which non-indigenous Canadians may be able to help indigenous Canadians succeed in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission world, a world in which we live in hope.
Image credit: SlickPNG.com