Building capacity

Building capacity

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Contributors:

Joey Fitzpatrick

An abandoned mine shaft beneath Sudbury, Ont. might not be everybody’s idea of a dream vacation destination. But if you’re a serious science buff, then this underground laboratory specializing in neutrino and dark matter physics will be just your cup of tea. At two kilometres underground, the sensitive experiments carried out at SNOLAB are shielded from the cosmic radiation at the earth’s surface.

In July, some 16 Indigenous high school students and their teachers from across the Atlantic region will get to experience this scientific wow-factor with a visit to SNOLAB. The excursion is part of a program called Digital Mi’kmaq, a unique educational initiative of Ulnooweg.

“We want to expose young people to the world of science, technology and engineering,” says Chris Googoo, Chief Operating Officer with Ulnooweg. “This is where the future opportunities are, in areas like big data, robotics, 3D modelling and artificial intelligence. So we want our young people to be comfortable in that world.”

Digital Mi’kmaq was launched in January 2018 to deliver an enhanced curriculum in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to Indigenous youth and children. Strategic partnerships have been forged with Dalhousie University’s Institute of Big Data Analytics, the Canadian Space Agency, DHX Media and Mila, the artificial intelligence learning laboratory at the University of Montreal. Canada’s Governor General is a patron of the program and on May 24, 2018 Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen visited L’nu Sipuk Kina’muokuom School in Indian Brook, N.S. to inspire students to follow their dreams.

The story of Ulnooweg is a story of reclaiming triumph from tragedy. It’s now called the Sixties Scoop and it refers to the scooping up of Indigenous children from their families for placement in mostly non-Indigenous homes. The practice occurred across Canada and the U.S. beginning in the 1950s and persisting well into the 1970s. In many cases the children were forcibly removed from their homes.

“By the 1970s many of those children started returning to their communities,” says Googoo. “They were coming back and looking for their parents, their family members and their communities and asking why they were adopted out of their homes.”

The Indigenous community’s response to this tragedy was multi-faceted and sweeping. The Mi’kmaq Family and Children Services was created to meet the needs of children, youth and families within the Indigenous communities. It halted the adopting out of children by giving the communities the tools to deal with the social issues.

Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work now has an affirmative action admissions program and in September, 2005 the school welcomed a cohort of 30 Mi’kmaq and Maliseet social work students in a joint initiative with St. Thomas University’s School of Social Work.

It was also recognized that there had to be an avenue for economic development and job creation. The dark side of Canada’s history did much to quash the Aboriginal entrepreneurial spirit that had boomed during the fur trading days of the 1700s. In 1885 a pass system was put in place that required people living on a reserve to get written permission to be off the reserve and this system was enforced into the 1940s. Before 1960 Indigenous people did not have the right to vote in Canadian federal elections and it was not until the 1980s that the federal government began to address Aboriginal business development. And the government’s first halting steps in that direction, however well-intended, did not exactly hit the mark.

“They really didn’t know how to do it,” says Paul Langdon, Major Projects Manager with Ulnooweg. “At first they just attached it to existing programs for small and medium-sized businesses. They didn’t take into account the degree to which the Aboriginal community had been isolated up to that point and that they mostly did not have access to those programs.”

Ulnooweg is a Mi’kmaq word which roughly translated means to make Indigenous or adapt the beliefs, customs and culture of the Mi’kmaq people. Within this context the Ulnooweg Development Group operates as an “Indigenized” development group that incorporates the perspectives of the Mi’kmaq people.

In addition to its focus on economic development, Ulnooweg has extended its scope in recent years and now provides support, training, education and research for employment opportunities of members. It also provides support for recognized benevolent and charitable enterprises.

Ulnooweg was incorporated in 1986, serves all of Atlantic Canada and is a member of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporation. Its team can help aspiring entrepreneurs through every step of the process, from preparing a business plan, to loan and grant applications and ongoing business support.

Since its inception Ulnooweg has disbursed approximately $70 million, with an average lending of $3.4 million annually.

“We provide financing for entrepreneurs and for the communities to a maximum of $250,000,” Googoo points out. Ulnooweg also manages a government entrepreneurial program that provides grants totalling $1.3 million per year.

The oceans sciences sector represents enormous opportunity for economic development. Ulnooweg is a collaborator with COVE, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, a world-class facility in Dartmouth for applied innovation in the oceans sector. It’s a hub where start-up companies, small and medium-sized enterprises and post-secondary expertise are housed together.

“This is one of the reasons we focus on STEM for the young people,” Langdon says. “There’s a lot of overlap between science, engineering and entrepreneurship. Engineers and entrepreneurs both tend to be problem solvers.”

Ulnooweg is also well positioned to play a role in the Oceans Supercluster, one of five such innovation superclusters across the country designed to make Canada a leader in the knowledge-based economy. The supercluster will foster new partnerships with industry, post-secondary institutions, government and Indigenous communities to accelerate innovation and commercialization and derive sustainable economic growth from the oceans.

“We’re trying to achieve three things through our engagement strategy with the supercluster,” Langdon says. “Those are: entrepreneurial capacity over the long term, careers in STEM; and governance — our participation in the process to help steer it through.”

For it’s first two decades Ulnooweg was focussed on economic development. Then six years ago it broadened its mandate to include research, training and financial literacy. The Ulnooweg Financial Education Centre was launched to provide research and financial literacy training for Indigenous communities.
The centre is a registered charity designed to enhance the financial decision-making abilities of First Nations Chiefs and Council.

The centre has developed, tested and implemented an innovative and proprietary approach to community financial reviews that enables decision makers, who may not have advanced financial training, to better understand and take control of their finances.

“What we’ve done is take from 10 to 17 years of a community’s audited statements and represent them in pictographs,” Googoo says. “It provides trends analyses on revenues and expenses in the community, with a focus on debt capacity. This service is not even available to municipalities.”

Then last June the Ulnooweg Indigenous Communities Foundation was established to strengthen the relationship between Canada’s philanthropic sector and First Nations communities across Atlantic Canada. A 2017 analysis by the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada concluded that approximately one per cent of registered charities in Canada are Indigenous-focused. That is, have a purpose that includes serving the Indigenous population — this despite the fact that Indigenous people make up five per cent of the Canadian population.

“This is obviously an area where we needed to be a disruptor,” Googoo points out.

The foundation’s directors are chiefs and leaders from Atlantic Canada’s Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities, supported by experienced professional advisors. The foundation will work with businesses, individuals, families and other organizations to achieve their philanthropic goals.

“Having 35 years experience and ISO certification gives us the credibility and gives our clients the confidence to come to us to deliver these programs,” Langdon says.

Capacity building has been a large part of Ulnooweg’s history. A Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1999 affirmed the right of Indigenous people to catch and sell fish under relevant treaties. But the establishment of a native fishery was no simple matter. It was a tumultuous time, with wharf burnings and confrontations with non-Indigenous fishermen. There was also great uncertainty, as the Indigenous communities at the time lacked the infrastructure and expertise to manage a fishing industry.

“There was a lot of money rolled out, but nobody had looked at building the capacity within the communities,” Googoo recalls.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans approached Ulnooweg to become involved in establishing a viable Indigenous fishery. The Fisheries Business Development Team was established in 2008 through a partnership between Ulnooweg and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. The team has expertise in fisheries, aquaculture and community economic development.

“We are able to help people in the industry make informed decisions,” Langdon says.

The Indigenous fishing industry has grown from $4 million annually in 1999 to more than $100 million today and provides thousands of full-time jobs across the region.

“That’s the kind of role Ulnooweg wants to play going forward,” Langdon says. “We want to increase the entrepreneurial capacity, so our communities can play a deeper, broader role in the economy.”

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