For the past four years, the same ten young Aboriginal girls have been meeting for a week-long summer camp but, unlike other camps, these girls haven’t spent all day canoeing or swimming. Instead, they have been busy constructing mock generating stations, firing hand-crafted rockets, participating in a robotics competition, building dams and designing a three-dimensional house.
As a result, these summer campers are seriously considering science and technology careers, thanks to the exposure given to them by Manitoba Hydro’s Building the Circle summer career exploration camp.
“Up until this program, most of the girls wanted to be teachers, nurses or social workers,” says Ron Richard, Manitoba Hydro’s Senior Aboriginal Employment Relations Advisor. “Those are honourable careers but, by the end of the camp, all of the girls wanted to be in science and technology.”
That’s important news, for several reasons. For starters, women, in general, are grossly under-represented in the technology fields and Aboriginal women are even a greater rarity. Likewise, with the retirement of millions of baby boomers, Canada is going to need as many resources as possible to fill the impending shortfall of skilled technological workers.
Looking ahead, Manitoba Hydro knew of an untapped, hidden resource full of talent, intelligence and promise – the province’s Aboriginal youth. However, it hadn’t always seen it that way. During the 1980’s, less than one per cent of Manitoba Hydro’s workforce was comprised of Aboriginal employees. Generally, Aboriginal employees were under-represented in most occupational groups, concentrated in entry-level and lower skilled positions, excluded from numerous job families, ranked low in seniority and terminated at a rate disproportional to non-Aboriginal employees.
To its credit, Manitoba Hydro has worked hard at overcoming the barriers that Aboriginal people face in employment, advancement and retention. As a result, Aboriginal representation rose to approximately six per cent by the mid-1990’s, after which it reached a plateau. In the year 2000, Manitoba Hydro decided that its Aboriginal employment equity strategy had to be taken to another level to increase representation again.“There were numerous long standing employment practices that stood in the way of fully accessing the talent within Aboriginal communities,” says Richard. “To address this, we formed a joint committee that was charged with removing the systemic barriers.” Although Manitoba Hydro began experiencing significant successes in the employment of Aboriginal people, representation of female Aboriginal employees remained low. And that’s where its unique recruitment strategy came in. “It’s a visionary thing,” says Richard. “The more we teach, the more it takes on a life of its own. And the program has had a huge impact on the girls’ lives that went way beyond what we initially expected,” he says.
Last September, the ten campers were brought back together for their “graduation.” It was an event marked by touching testimonials and shared tears. “They made people cry...I got misty myself,” says Richard. “We had to limit seating at the graduation because so many people wanted to come,” adds Richard. “The ripple effect was fantastic.”
For the girls, now more like a sisterhood, the experience had radically altered their future goals and career aspirations but, more importantly, it had changed the way they viewed themselves. As one parent observed, “I think she realized she is worth something.”
Another unexpected outcome of the camp was the effect on the staff who were involved in developing and implementing the camp model. As Manitoba Hydro employees researched best practices with respect to youth programming, Aboriginal employment initiatives and partnerships, they were then able to apply that learning to their human resource practice.
Ironically, the camp’s values of mentorship, knowledge transference and inclusion had come full circle.