The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative
The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative’s Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program: Success through Innovation and Collaboration
The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI) is a Montreal-based charitable organization created by the Right Honourable Paul Martin and his family in 2008. MAEI’s mission is to improve educational outcomes among Aboriginal youth. The groundwork for this innovative organization was laid many years earlier. During a summer spent working on a barge on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. Mr. Martin was struck by the stark contrast between the optimism of his friends at home in Windsor, Ontario and the resignation of the Aboriginal crew, who expressed no hope for the future. It was in his interactions with his crewmates that he began to understand the disparities between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal Canadians and he became committed to eliminating them.
“When we first started, we wondered how this would work. Aboriginal youth face challenges of drop-out, teen pregnancy, suicide – how will we help overcome this through our programming?” – Lucie Santoro
Launch of the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship program , Fort Simpson Secondary School, Fort Simpson, NT
Lucie Santoro, MAEI’s Director of Administration and Mr. Martin’s long-time advisor, emphasizes two aspects of MAEI’s programming – innovation and collaboration. MAEI chose to focus on the underlying causes of the challenges facing Aboriginal youth – hopelessness and lack of opportunity – expressed in the high drop out, substance abuse and suicide rates seen among these youth. MAEI set out to help create a vision of a brighter future.
To promote Aboriginal youths’ educational opportunities and their engagement in school, MAEI created the innovative Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP). AYEP is now in 44 schools across seven provinces and one territory, teaching Aboriginal youth about business and providing credit towards high school graduation. The program provides opportunities to develop the practical skills – budgeting, financial knowledge, presentation skills, time management – and social-emotional skills – leadership, collaboration, creativity – that are the building blocks of successful careers in business and beyond.
AYEP’s multiple hands-on program components reflect MAEI’s novel strategy for promoting school success. Students develop a business plan during the program and have access to start-up funding. They are mentored, participate in business competitions, and go on field trips to local businesses. For example, AYEP students attended the 2014 Annual General Meeting of PotashCorp, MAEI’s corporate partner in supporting AYEP across Saskatchewan. Leanne Bellegarde, PotashCorp’s Director of Aboriginal Strategy, recalls that “after the AGM, it was amazing – seeing the students mingle with our investors and employees was really great. They got a sense of the opportunities they could have for themselves.”
Thomas Simpson Secondary School, Fort Simpson, NT.
AYEP also utilizes program-specific textbooks and teacher resources. Aboriginal students do not typically see themselves reflected in their school materials, especially textbooks. MAEI worked with Nelson Education Ltd. to create materials written by Aboriginal teachers and designed to reflect Aboriginal students’ experiences. The textbooks present case studies that involve real Aboriginal examples so the students see their traditions and business realities in print. Brandon Wright, an AYEP teacher from Thunder Bay, lauds the materials as “genuine, accessible, applicable, and most importantly, relevant.” The program materials’ cultural relevance also resonated with Ms. Bellegarde, who notes that AYEP appeals to PotashCorp, in part, because its materials are “grounded in First Nations role models.”
MAEI is involved in each AYEP site from development through implementation, engaging in monthly conference calls with participating schools and yearly site visits. As Ms. Santoro explains, “We want them to succeed. We are there for them as much as they need.”
“This is about Aboriginal kids. No project goes forward without the community being convinced it is a good project. We need the school boards, the government, and the business community. We couldn’t have done it without our partners.” – Lucie Santoro
One lesson Mr. Martin brought to MAEI from his background in business and politics is that fostering collaboration among multiple stakeholders with different agendas is tough. Because MAEI uses private resources, it works outside of the political arena with Aboriginal communities, government and business to achieve a clear common objective. MAEI’s corporate partners, including Scotiabank and PotashCorp, emphasize that MAEI’s goals mesh with their own. Lee Walker, Scotiabank’s Director of Aboriginal Banking, explains, “We also share MAEI’s goals to help keep these bright young students in school and continuing on to post-secondary education.”
Another corporate partner is RBC, which supports a broad range of community initiatives. Shari Austin vice-president and head, Corporate Citizenship at RBC states, “We are proud to support MAEI and help provide Aboriginal students with the tools and resources they need to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in life.”
The beginnings of AYEP illustrate the central importance of collaboration to MAEI. AYEP’s programming was developed based on well-documented and evaluated programs from other countries, then adapted to be reflective of Aboriginal Peoples. The first AYEP school, Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nation High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, was selected in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Education in 2007. The Ministry worked with MAEI to develop curricula that met the requirements for Ontario high school course credit. MAEI’s collaborations are enduring. Not only is the DFC program still going strong, but the government of Ontario recently committed $1.35 million to support AYEP programming in ten additional high schools across that province.
From MAEI’s perspective, the most important collaborators are Aboriginal Peoples. Prior to establishing the DFC program, MAEI met with leaders of the First Nations communities served by the school to ensure their support. The program moved ahead only when it had the approval of leaders, who requested that an Aboriginal teacher be assigned to the program. Of her recent experience helping to launch AYEP’s expansion into Saskatchewan, Ms. Bellegarde states that the program was “embraced by teachers, students and people in the community.”
Businesses also contribute to the success of AYEP. Business leaders mentor students, provide speakers and job-shadowing experiences and support student entrepreneurs. PotashCorp provides financial support to AYEP programs across Saskatchewan and engages directly with program students. Scotiabank launched its partnership with MAEI in 2011 by supporting the first on-reserve AYEP, located at Opaskawayak Cree Nation, Manitoba. Scotiabank also recently expanded its support to another high school on Blood Reserve, Alberta.
When asked how MAEI has been successful in facilitating collaboration and garnering support among so many key stakeholders, Ms. Santoro points to Mr. Martin’s youth-centred values. The needs of Aboriginal youth come first and foremost.
“When I ask students what kinds of entrepreneurs there are at the beginning of the program, I usually get answers like Donald Trump or Bill Gates… By the end of the program, students have frequently told me they feel that the business world is a viable education and career path for them.” – Brandon Wright
AYEP offers Aboriginal youth the hope of educational attainment, the hope of a rewarding career and the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge to succeed. Ms. Bellegarde finds “AYEP very accountable in terms of the outcomes of participants… It helps Aboriginal youth in their engagement, challenges them to think of themselves as business people and participants in the economy… and it gets them thinking about being partners in their own success.”
AYEP participants have developed business plans to sell products (including homemade dog treats and Aboriginal jewelry) and services (including photography and video game system rentals) – and used their leadership skills to become anti-tobacco and suicide prevention activists. Participants have also succeeded in local and national business competitions. AYEP students from Children of the Earth High School in Winnipeg placed in the top three at the Business Development Bank of Canada’s E-Spirit National Aboriginal Youth Business Plan Competition in four of the past five years – including 2012, when they won all three top prizes. Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde is pleased to see the emerging positive impact of the MAEI program.
“At a time when the role of First Nations education is garnering its rightful prominence in the minds of all Canadians, the addition of the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program represents an important ‘step up on the ladder’ for our young people. The encouragement of an entrepreneurial mindset, while certainly not new to First Nations people, will prove to be one more mechanism by which our children can, and will, achieve economic self-sufficiency.”
What’s next for MAEI and AYEP?
“It’s an interesting thing, when you develop a program with First Nations and Metis youth in mind, everyone ends up benefitting.” – Leanne Bellegarde
MAEI continues to focus on strengthening its current programs and partnerships and developing new initiatives. AYEP materials are being revised to keep up with current technology, youth culture and business practices. MAEI also hopes to launch AYEP in the remaining provinces and to develop AYEP online. Ms. Santoro states the goal succinctly: “Get into as many schools as possible.”