From cook to electrician: How Indigenous youth are bouncing back from the pandemic

Carissa Menz, 27, loved being a cook. Working for restaurants all over Vancouver, she’d pour her “heart and soul” into it, she says.

But after being on temporary layoff for months in the COVID-19 pandemic and then working with reduced hours for a while longer, she needed a change.

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Today, Menz, who is a member of the Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan, is training to become an electrician, thanks to a fully-funded opportunity she found through the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS). The work is physically demanding, she says, but that doesn’t seem to faze her.

“I get stronger every day,” she quips.

Menz, who was just hired on as an apprentice at Western Pacific Enterprises after some training and a preliminary on-the-job experience, says her pay has already increased from around $16 an hour to about $18 an hour.

In six months, she says, she’ll get another raise to roughly $20 per hour, the pay level it had taken her 10 years to work up to in the restaurant industry.

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Indigenous youth ‘a vital influx’ for Canada’s economy

Indigenous People in Canada, who were more likely to be employed in low-paying service-sector jobs, have been disproportionately affected by pandemic layoffs, according to Statistics Canada.

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But as economic growth picks up speed in the recovery, that picture is changing.

In Stony Plain, Alta., Jordan Jolicoeur, president CEO of Carvel Electric, says his company, a family-owned business with Métis roots, was not only able to retain all its workers through the pandemic but is now hiring.

And with labour shortages in the skilled trades exacerbated by older workers retiring, the firm, where 80 per cent of staff are Indigenous, is ready to take on hires with little experience and “groom” them, Jolicoeur says.

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Across the economy, employment rates for both Indigenous women and men are back to pre-pandemic levels. By comparison, the employment of non-Indigenous Canadians has yet to bounce back to pre-COVID levels, although employment rates for Indigenous populations have historically been and continue to be lower than for non-Indigenous people, according to Statistics Canada.

Still, growing four times faster than Canada’s non-Indigenous population, Indigenous youth represents a “vital influx of entrepreneurs, innovators, managers and business owners,” for Canada’s economy, a recent RBC report noted. Over the next decade, 750,000 Indigenous young people will graduate from school and start their careers, the bank estimates.

There are obstacles, though.

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One of them is painfully slow internet. A staggering 75 per cent of households in First Nations communities do not have access to high-speed internet, the report notes.

And that isn’t an issue just in rural and remote areas, says Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). When Bull visits her parent in Nipissing First Nation, just a 10-minute drive from North Bay, Ont., for example, she can hardly have a virtual conversation with her camera turned on.

That’s a key stumbling block for remote work and a significant choke point for many businesses, which have become much more reliant on e-commerce and digital channels to reach out to customers in the pandemic.

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Fulfilling the federal government’s pledge to bring high-speed to every Canadian by 2030 will be key to ensuring Indigenous youth are equipped to realize their economic potential, RBC said.

“We met youth who were thriving business-wise on YouTube and TikTok doing all sorts of really exciting things. But they need those tools, that infrastructure to stay in their communities and connect with the world,” John Stackhouse, senior vice president in the office of the CEO at RBC, told Global News speaking about the bank’s research. 

Another key promise from Ottawa is a requirement for federal departments and agencies to ensure a minimum of five per cent of the total value of government procurement contracts are allocated to Indigenous businesses, Bull says.

While the idea of a five-per-cent procurement mandate isn’t new, the fact that the federal government recently re-committed to it is a step in the right direction, she adds.

To reach that target, CCAB has been calling on Ottawa to establish a government-wide strategy with “some tangible commitments to ensuring that every federal organization has that requirement of five per cent and that they’re reporting and measuring on that,” Bull says.

There’s also a lot the government should do when it comes to education.

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Only 45 per cent of Indigenous people aged 24 to 35 have a post-secondary education, compared to 71 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians, according to the RBC research. The report recommends expanding academic bridging programs at universities, colleges and apprenticeship programs.

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An academic bridging program was the first step in Menz’s path to becoming an electrician. The program came at no cost plus transportation costs and a meal allowance.

The program Menz enrolled in, called Pathways to Electrical, provides Indigenous students with the skills they need to enter into a first-year apprenticeship as electricians. ACCESS pays for tuition costs, provides materials and supplies, a living allowance and any necessary tutoring.

Now that she is a freshly-minted apprentice, Menz has five more years before becoming a journeyperson. As an electrician, she stands to earn up to $39 an hour in British Columbia, according to wage data from the Canada Job Bank.

Menz says she hasn’t decided yet whether she’d like to set out on her own or work for an electrical employer. But the future looks bright, she adds.

“I want to spend more time with my family and friends and I want to earn more money. I want to buy a house one day,” she says.

“I got my dog,” she adds with a laugh. “I need a backyard for him.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.