When Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in Lake Simcoe, became vice provost of Aboriginal Initiatives for Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, she wanted to organize a program to encourage students to come to the university for an education and to support them while they were there.
In meetings with First Nations leaders from the far northwestern communities, she found they supported the networking idea with an additional request. “‘Yes, we need something like that,’” she said she was told. “‘But,’ they added, ‘we don’t want to just educate people without providing them work.’”
That request culminated May 2014 with the start of CLAN—the Northwestern Coordinated Learning Access Network.
CLAN supports students when they build an online profile before, during and after their post-secondary education with mentors, counseling, job- and life-skills workshops, relationship-building events and access to community and business partners.
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Wesley-Esquimaux said that after she arrived on campus, “I had no ability to know who everyone was and where everyone was.”
She realized students, too, needed guides to get them to the right people. And in working with high-school-aged and younger children to promote advanced education, she knew they needed help to navigate more effectively the urban environment when they arrived.
But as the elders emphasized, education was just the beginning. Graduates still needed to land good jobs. Enter CLAN’s comprehensive network, with a focus on indigenous students, but for all students. CLAN created new aids and tapped existing programs. The Magnet database in Toronto that links 38 universities, 8,000 employers and more than 70,000 students nationwide became the jobs component.
“We’re trying to build this massive network of people who are all coming on site to try to ensure that the indigenous community has access from all different points,” Wesley-Esquimaux said.
Since the launch of CLAN, 80 regional business partners have joined and about 500 local students are registered with online resumés.
As any job seeker knows, creating a resumé and applying for employment hardly guarantees an interview, let alone a job. That’s particularly true, sometimes, for indigenous graduates.
Wesley-Esquimaux repeatedly saw Native students having trouble landing jobs in their field or in any field. “They were educated, presentable, bright, and they couldn’t get an interview. They couldn’t get a foot in the door.”
The issue might be racial stereotypes that employers carried—consciously or unconsciously—if they saw an obviously Native name on an application. Or students might not know how to “market” themselves. CLAN helps them build that skills list.
“Sometimes the skill sets they acquire are not necessarily recognizable,” Wesley-Esquimaux explained. “Some of these kids chop wood regularly on a weekly basis for elders. Some are skilled hunters or fishermen or on a council for their community.”
To an employer, such activity proves commitment, the ability to complete tasks and to think broadly for a greater good.
To emphasize applicants’ skills and eliminate prejudging, the CLAN site links them to employers based solely on job and needs. The resumés, from Native and non-Native applicants, are “completely anonymous—no name, gender or background. It just matches skills to skills,” said Wesley-Esquimaux.
CLAN also institutes two aspects to its program beyond the job search.
The program brings together Native and non-Native students over coffee or study groups to broaden their networks and experiences and encourage community integration. “It’s not like the Indians are over there and the white people are over here,” Wesley-Esquimaux said. “We have 75,000 indigenous people in this region, so we are very intent upon building that relationship and improving it.”
CLAN has also encouraged indigenous students to become mentors and recruiters, both on campus and in the remote communities. “Initially I tried hiring coordinators, adults, and that didn’t work,” Wesley-Esquimaux said. “So I hired kids as ambassadors… 35 kids to enroll their peers.”
The ambassadors are role models as well as contacts. Two of the newest have videos posted to the CLAN website.
Brianna Decontie, now in her third year toward her bachelor’s degree in nursing, experienced a big change when she arrived to attend Lakehead, some 835 miles west from her home in the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec.
Lakehead University has 1,140 Native students, one of the highest indigenous enrollments of any Canadian university, but still totaling only slightly more than 10 percent of its students. “I had to get used to the university feel because I grew up on the reserve going to a private school with just Natives,” Decontie said.
At home, surrounded by family, she was influenced by her mom and her aunties. Her grounding in culture was aided by her Grandfather Peter Decontie, a Fire Keeper and one defendant in a Supreme Court case instrumental in recognizing First Nation hunting, fishing and other rights.
Away from home, Decontie found her traditional ties were still her lifelines. “Getting more in touch with my culture really helps ground me in hard times or if I’m missing my family.”
She made contacts with other Native students, and this past year was co-organizer of the university’s annual pow wow and is president of the Lakehead University Native Students Association. She also discovered CLAN and mentors other students. “It was a great experience. I think it’s a beautiful thing that’s being created.”
Stephanie Seymour also came to Thunder Bay from a small community on St. Joseph Island, Ontario, with a population of about 2,000. Her mother is from Garden River First Nation and her father is of Irish heritage. Having recently received her master’s degree, she’s pursuing a doctorate and is on the university’s faculty of Natural Resources Management.
“One of the things that I really like about the CLAN network, it really looks at your education,” she said.
Seymour also appreciates that CLAN teaches how to translate life skills into resumé boosters. “It’s the same language by the person seeking the job and the person who’s hiring.”
As one might expect of role models, Decontie and Seymour are already contributing back to their and other communities. During breaks, Decontie works with the child health program at Kitigan Zibi. Seymour’s master’s degree project examined how to use wood products to create electricity and other energy needs for remote communities.
Seymour hopes that through CLAN and such programs, the stereotypes preventing community integration and job access will break down. As she learned from her own CLAN mentors: “You are not the stereotype, you are the prototype.”
This story was originally published on November 27, 2016.