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Forsyth Addresses Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce

December 6, 2012

Red River College President Stephanie Forsyth addressed a packed house at an Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week, speaking on the topic of Aboriginal post-secondary education.

Forsyth discussed the College’s longstanding commitment to engaging and supporting Aboriginal students; shared some success stories about Aboriginal graduates who are making a difference in their communities; and outlined how the College plans to make Aboriginal student achievement a strategic priority by integrating traditional knowledge and practices throughout the organization.

The full text of President Forsyth’s speech is below.

STEPHANIE FORSYTH SPEECH TO ABORIGINAL CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
December 4, 2012

Introduction

T’oyaxs-sm (thank you) for the introduction and the opportunity to speak with you today

It has been two years since I was welcomed to the traditional territory of the Treaty 1 First Nations through a pipe ceremony and Feast.

For those who don’t know me, my First Nations name is Bealsum Jius (Morning Star) and I belong to the House of Chief T’axaye. I am a member of the Gisbutwada or Killer Whale clan, of the Tsimshian Nation in Northwest BC, and I was honored to be so warmly welcomed by the Chiefs and Elders of this region.

I’ve been asked to speak about the College’s role and commitment to working with our Aboriginal communities to engage more Aboriginal students in post-secondary education and about our efforts to support Aboriginal students achieve meaningful careers or launch their own businesses. I am pleased to do this, as this is something to which I’ve devoted much of my professional career.

It is also something many at RRC have dedicated their careers to – people like Marti Ford, April Krahn, Board member Don Robertson, Elders Mae Louise Campbell, Jules Lavallee, Lavinia Brown and many others.

Aboriginal Education – Where We’ve Been

In fact for almost 20 years Red River College has made efforts to do this and has sought feedback and support from the Aboriginal community through community forums and focused discussions. And through these and other dialogues, the community has consistently emphasized the need for the College to make changes that would encourage greater Aboriginal participation, student success and a brighter future for their children.

It was for this reason that the College, several years ago, created the School of Indigenous Education.  This School has grown to include many programs that are designed for Aboriginal learners or focused on specialized areas of study like Aboriginal Languages, Aboriginal Self-Government and Community Economic Development.

Through this School, a number of support services have been created for students, including the Aboriginal Centre at our Notre Dame Campus and a gathering place at the Exchange District Campus where ongoing events like sacred circles and family fun nights provide a stronger sense of community.

Holistic and traditional supports have also come together with our Elders – such as: talking circles, cultural teachings, smudging and drumming. These supports bring students together as a community to participate and learn from one another.   Many of you have also graciously provided support for these students by way of scholarships and bursaries that are funded by companies and agencies that are represented in this room today.

Our commitment to Aboriginal learners is a priority at RRC, demonstrated by changes we are making to the College environment and by the departments that provide leadership and training. For the past three summers the School of Indigenous Education has held the Hands-on Activity Week for Kids — or HAWK Camp — to introduce Aboriginal youth to career options in trades and technology fields.  By creating the confidence and courage in our younger learners now, we hope to eliminate the barrier of fear and mystery of entering into the College in the future.

Through programs such as HAWK, we strive to make students feel welcomed at the College at an early age; to feel a ‘part of’ the College community as opposed to feeling like ‘outsider’. Feeling like an outsider can create a burden of fear and access limitations.  We want the youth to feel a connection to the College, and to know that higher education is their right and well within their reach.

Many Aboriginal students have entered RRC, and many have graduated and gone on to great personal and business achievements and serving today as pillars of our community and recognized as role models.

People like Sky Bridges and Vera Houle, who are part of the leadership team at the Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

People like Joe Thompson, the Recruitment and Diversity Advisor for Manitoba Hydro. Two years ago he also chose RRC’s annual Graduation Pow Wow as the site of his first-ever traditional dance.

People like Joan Jack who has established her own legal practice in Manitoba, received the College’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007, and ran for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations earlier this year.

And people like Shirley Delorme Russell, Jerri-Lynn Orr and Rose Bird, who between 2010 and 2012, became the first three graduates of the joint Aboriginal Language Teacher Education degree program between RRC and the University of Winnipeg. All three of them now work at Winnipeg schools, providing culturally sensitive classroom teaching and resource assistance.

There are many Aboriginal students attending RRC, particularly in the trades and technical fields. People like Edward Forbister, an Electrical graduate who recently wrote us a letter expressing how thankful he is for the opportunities that have come to him as a result of attending college.

As he says in his letter,

“I had an opportunity to attend Red River College in September 2010, and I went for it.  I graduated with honors from the Electrical program in 2011 and was awarded the H. C. McGregor Memorial Award for the hard work and energy that I had dedicated to my studies.

In November 2011, I accepted a position with McKenzie Electric. I realize that I have a few more years of hard work and financial struggle ahead of me, but there is one thing I know for sure:

I love my job.  I’ve had nothing but low-paying dead end jobs in the past.  I’ve always wanted to be an electrician.  Now I know what it feels like to be one.  For the first time in my life I can say I have a career.

Edward’s story is not the ‘exception’ at the college and we really want to honor his success by creating more experiences just like this.  We know that Western systems are laced with challenges and barriers that are not easy to work through, but Edward’s story really represents the pathway we want to achieve at Red River College.

RRC Background

Red River College is a large institution. In the past 15 years it has tripled in size serving students throughout southeast Manitoba. We’ve grown to over 31,000 enrolments in more than 200 programs ranging from welding to aerospace manufacturing, digital media design and mechanical engineering. We offer Bachelor degrees – currently in nursing and construction management – and are planning others for the future.

What sets us apart from other institutions is our applied, experiential approach to learning; the offering of technical degrees and our close connections with industry particularly in the areas of workforce development, research and innovation. We have established ourselves as innovation intermediaries, bridging the gap between research and commercialization and importantly, engaging our students in applied, practical research that will help businesses and the economy grow.

In the last 6 years we have developed applied research partnerships with companies like StandardAero, Magellan Aerospace, Manitoba Hydro, New Flyer and Motor Coach Industries, where the College provides the technology and researchers needed to boost innovation and productivity.

We work closely with business leaders and sector councils to ensure our programs meet the labour demands of today, and into the future.

In so doing, we have become an essential training resource for Manitoba’s industry and communities.

So we have grown a lot in our 74 years of existence, and while trades programming, which formed our beginnings, is still a key focus for us, it is only a third of what we do today.

Today, Red River College is a higher education choice for Manitobans, not a second or third choice, but a choice in a network of post-secondary education choices in the province.

And, Red River College is the choice for those seeking applied, experiential learning that will provide them with the skills to hit the ground running in their chosen careers.

Aboriginal Education – Where We’re Going

Our efforts to enable students to meet their goals have met with great success, but for many Aboriginal students, we have not come as far as we must.

As we go forward, we know we must take a much more prominent role in engaging, supporting and ultimately empowering Aboriginal learners.

Provincial demographics and the socio-economic challenges faced by many Métis, Inuit and First Nations people calls into question the appropriateness of having a public post-secondary institution, grounded in western values and colonial systems, serving a population that is over 15 % Aboriginal.   With such a large percentage of Aboriginal residents, it is arguable that the College has an obligation to become an institution that acknowledges Aboriginal perspectives, values and knowledge alongside Western perspectives, values and knowledge.

So in the College’s new Strategic Plan, launched this year, we have set upon a path that calls for a ‘shift in thinking’, an integration of Aboriginal knowledge and practices throughout the college.

From the classroom to the boardroom, we will examine our ways of doing business, rethink our standard – westernized ways of doing things, and shed some of our long held beliefs about how colleges must be run. Instead of fitting the Aboriginal student into a system that too frequently ensures they don’t succeed; we want to remake the system to fit the student so success becomes an attainable right and not a privilege as it is often seen.

Without a college-wide shift in our thinking, attempts to successfully engage Aboriginal learners will continue to fall short of expectations at best, and at worst will perpetuate the ongoing history of broken promises, and change that comes too late.

So what does this ‘shift in thinking’ mean? At Red River College, it means we’re not interested in recruiting more Aboriginal learners into our mainstream post-secondary system, simply to increase our statistics; this is not a numbers game.

It means not paying lip service to First Nations, Métis or Inuit traditions and culture.  It means designing and delivering more programs to better reflect the history and contributions of our Aboriginal people. All Manitobans need to be more aware of those rich cultural histories and the important contributions Aboriginal people have made and continue to make to medicine, architecture, science, art, and music.

It means making space for the Aboriginal perspective in curricula across the college, not just in the School of Indigenous Education or programs which cater to a primarily Aboriginal market.

It means considering the Aboriginal perspective when designing buildings and creating policy.

It means creating a College in which both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worldview may respectfully co-exist.

This is a complex task, Aboriginal people are not homogenous – and not all embrace their traditions and culture, but there are many who do, and many others who seek to reclaim that which they lost through colonial practices.

The Economic Argument

Enhancing the engagement and success of Aboriginal learners in post-secondary education is not just important for social reasons; there is also a compelling economic case for engaging more Aboriginal students in the post-secondary system.

Manitoba faces a critical demographic challenge in the years ahead. A growing number of experienced workers are reaching retirement age. From manufacturing to health care to construction, there are simply not enough skilled individuals to replace the huge numbers that are set to retire. Statistics Canada anticipates a shortfall in our workforce of 1.5 million people by 2021, 2.1 million by 2026, and 2.7 million by 2031.

Meanwhile, the increasing complexity of the workplace requires a skill set that goes well beyond high school education.

Currently, 70% of employment opportunities require a post-secondary education; however, only 60% of Canadians meet this standard right now and even fewer Aboriginal people meet this standard. These numbers identify a significant training gap.

More specifically, it is college graduates that are in high demand to fill these jobs. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business reports that on a ratio of six to one, college graduates are required over university graduates to fill shortages in advanced skills.

Our data supports this finding – despite the recent recession, RRC graduates continue to be in high demand – 95% of our students find jobs upon graduation.

So unless we work together to increase participation rates in higher education, we could simultaneously experience a skilled labor shortage and high unemployment, a syndrome that’s been called “People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People.”

The Manitoba government acknowledged this in its recent throne speech, stating that engaging more Aboriginal workers is part of its strategy to add 75,000 new people to the labour force by 2020.

We know that Aboriginal communities are significantly under-represented in our colleges and universities, and in our current work force. Yet Aboriginal people constitute the fastest-growing and youngest segment of our population. In Manitoba the Aboriginal population has grown 36% in recent years and by 2020 – 50% of Aboriginal people will be under the age of 24 years.

But Aboriginal youth continue to have the lowest high school completion rate of any demographic group in Canada.

Recent Aboriginal high school graduates are 23 percent less likely than their non-Aboriginal peers to go on to postsecondary education within two years of completing high school.

Improving access to post-secondary education for Aboriginal students is essential for the economic and social development of all our communities, and a potential reservoir for the advanced skills needed by Canadian employers.

But that won’t happen if we don’t move beyond trying to make the Aboriginal person ‘fit’ into our Western mainstream organizations.

Aboriginal Education – How We’ll Get There

So how are we going to achieve this shift in how we think about our College; how are we going to stop trying to make the Aboriginal student ‘fit’ into our Western post-secondary system?

A first step is renewing our commitment to Aboriginal learners.  In our new Strategic Plan Aboriginal Achievement was identified as one of only four major themes in our new Strategic Plan. This speaks to how important this initiative is to our entire institution.

The Strategic Plan compels us to build upon the work that has been done in the School of Indigenous Education with the support of community; taking lessons learned to other programs in the College.

The new Strategic Plan encourages us to leverage the success we’ve already had through partnerships with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities as well as community organizations across the province.

Success that is evident, for example, through our partnerships with social agencies on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End, itself a microcosm of the sort of tightly knit, working-class communities that are so abundant in the city and throughout Manitoba.

These partnerships have been primarily developed and led by Elders, families, community members, and interested agencies that are the heart of the north-end community.

A good example of such a partnership is our work with Urban Circle: since the mid-1990s, we’ve joined with the Urban Circle Training Centre to deliver training in early child-care and family support services. In doing so, we’re proud to be working with the community by contributing to the growing complement of inner Winnipeg residents who aim to improve their neighborhoods from the inside out.

More recently, this partnership has culminated in the opening of the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre, a child-care facility for infants, toddlers, and pre-school aged children that promotes community-based inter-generational learning, while being reflective of Aboriginal values and worldview.

Local programming and education opportunities offered in the community typically include holistic supports, such as traditional teachings, cultural support and counseling. With another north-end partner we are offering the Child and Youth Care program. This program targets individuals who have struggled with street-involved activities and provides them with strength-based skills to help others escape cycles of violence, abuse and addiction. With the support and guidance of the community, we’re working together to help those who were shuffled through the child welfare system to create better opportunities for future generations through this program.

These are a few of the examples of how we are leveraging partnerships to do things differently.  As a College, going forward, future opportunities lie in learning how best to work with our Aboriginal community and businesses like yours to leverage these and other ideas to make an even greater contribution.

Conclusion

I invite you to join us on this path of re-thinking the College; of finding new and different ways of appropriately engaging Aboriginal learners to ensure that the jobs of the future are held or created by them.

I am pleased to announce that the Métis Federation has committed to joining RRC on this journey and this month David Chartrand and I will be signing a Memorandum of Understanding to signal that commitment to our respective organizations.

If this journey of greater, appropriate engagement of Aboriginal students resonates with you, then please talk to us; if working towards the development of a strong Aboriginal workforce is of interest to you, please share your perspectives with us.

If changing the employment statistics of Manitoba’s Aboriginal community is something you are passionate about – come see us – we have lessons to share and much more to learn.

I hope that by working together, we can help a lot more students like Edward Forbister realize their dreams.