By Tammy Schuster
Saskatchewan’s aboriginal community is the fastest-growing demographic in the province. It is expected to make up to one quarter of Saskatchewan’s population over the next 20 years. It is also the youngest demographic with the average age (22) nearly half that of the general population (40+). These two factors are rapidly making this community an essential part of the Saskatchewan economy, and the mining industry is taking notice.
With an education gap of 18 per cent last year, mining companies have undertaken new strategies that include partnering with education institutions to help engage and promote aboriginal people working in the industry.
Many post-secondary institutions have also developed programs and services aimed at helping aboriginal students enter, and succeed in, a variety of careers through pre-employment training and career awareness.
The Mining Industry Pre-Employment Program is one of the programs offered at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT) designed to prepare indigenous students interested in a career in the mining industry. The program examines the many job opportunities and the requirements necessary for employment in the mining industry, and it includes in-class training and hands-on skills development.
“The program gives students the insight of what it takes to work directly with the potash industry,” says Earl Greyeyes, potash industry job coach and employment coordinator, SIIT. “It gives them a feel for the industry when they go on site and into the mine.”
The 10-week full-time program includes computer training, communication and interview skills, a one-week practicum, and 100 per cent attendance is required. Offered three times a year, classes are full with 12 students in each of the school’s three locations. The program offers job coaching and has access to industry contacts with many trade industries.
“The focus of our program is to overcome some of the historic and cultural barriers that First Nations students encounter when trying to secure and keep employment in the mining industry,” says Greyeyes. “Our program is continuously growing and developing with the input from our industry partners. Utilizing feedback on how the school can better prepare and train our students will give our students that competitive edge.”
In 2008, Saskatchewan Polytechnic created its Aboriginal Student Achievement Plan — after consultation with approximately 600 individuals, including community members, industry instructors, and students — to identify and address barriers and obstacles for indigenous students. Their goals were to increase indigenous student enrolment and increase the program completion rate.
“If we improve the education gap and training in the indigenous population, we will see that benefit all of society,” says Jason Seright, director of aboriginal strategy, Saskatchewan Polytechnic. According to a report released by the Saskatoon Aboriginal Employment Partnership in June, the gap in education is costing the province over a billion dollars a year in lost economic impact.
“In the future, I see the gap closing and indigenous students graduating at the same rate as the non-indigenous students,” says Seright. “Enrollment increases each year and industry is paying attention to this. They see the indigenous population as a workforce that they can both support and benefit from.”
Seright says student enrollment at Saskatchewan Polytechnic has risen by 900 students in four years, with 3,700 aboriginal students currently enrolled.
Both schools say the mining industry in Saskatchewan has been very supportive of their programs. Greyeyes says that Mosaic and PotashCorp have hired students straight from the SIIT program.
“The Potash Corporation recognises that the commitment to aboriginal inclusion is very critical, particularly to the operating environment in Saskatchewan,” says Leanne Bellegarde, director, diversity & inclusion, Potash Corporation. “Given the demographic profile of Saskatchewan with the population of First Nations or Metis expected to increase, PotashCorp needed to be prepared in terms of inclusion in the future of the labour force and in the sustainability of their supply chain.”
The company developed an Aboriginal Engagement plan that focuses on a number of areas including recruitment and retention of aboriginal people, relationship building within the community, and employee awareness training.
PotashCorp also has partnerships with the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan where they have committed to give aboriginal engineering students a continuous summer employment opportunity for their entire four-year education. “Having a continuity of experience helps to make us attractive to them, but also makes them very competitive and attractive candidates if they choose to go elsewhere in their career.”
Bellegarde says the programs and training offered at PotashCorp not only allows for students to learn about opportunities available at the company, it’s also introduced employees to an entirely new talent pool that may have been overlooked in the past. “It has been a really positive aspect all around.”
To learn more about the programs offered at Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology, or at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, please visit their websites at siit.ca or saskpolytech.ca.by