It was 1990 when Métis educator Larry Stewart first noticed a “huge training gap” amongst residents in remote Indigenous communities.
Determined to address the issue, Stewart travelled to the Cree community of Weenusk (Peawanuk) First Nation to offer heavy equipment operator training to 10 participants. Word spread amongst the coastal communities and, before long, he was travelling up and down the Hudson Bay coast, training residents as he went.
“We would provide the training materials and the instructor, and then we would do a heavy equipment operator’s program in the community and go from there,” Stewart said.
“From that point, we basically expanded into other trades and technologies, and now we have a fivefold training strategy.”
Today, Stewart and his staff of 13 offer training from the Native Education & Training College of Business, Healthcare, Human Service & Technology (NETC), a 10,000-square-foot facility located in downtown North Bay.
NETC was the first registered and approved private, Indigenous-led career training college in Ontario, and it remains independent. NETC is also a member of the Contact North network.
The college offers a range of courses through five different schools: health sciences, human and community services, trades and technology, business, and management. The curricula, which is all developed in-house, caters to First Nations communities, along with tribal councils, friendship centres, and other Indigenous organizations.
Despite the nationwide need for skilled tradespeople, Stewart said trades programs like general carpentry and plumbing techniques have fallen out of favour with students. NETC’s most popular courses are in the health sciences field: personal support worker, addictions worker, medical administrative assistant, among others.
Stewart said that’s a direct reflection of the growing need, in many Indigenous communities, for health care personnel.
“Trades training is not that popular any longer,” he said. “There is a shortage (of skilled trades workers), but there’s not really that much interest in it.”
Most of NETC’s programming is now offered online, Stewart said, although courses such as early childcare assistant and personal support worker are hosted on campus, because they require students to complete a placement component. Online professional development training courses are also available.
With some Indigenous communities facing an unemployment rate of 80 per cent or more, being able to access learning and training opportunities from anywhere with a solid Internet connection is an invaluable resource, Stewart said.
“We can reach everyone online,” Stewart said. “It works much better because (students) don’t face the barriers of leaving their home community and coming to a strange city, or looking for accommodations for their family, or transportation.”
Stewart is particularly proud of the college’s flexible approach to advancing students’ learning. Features like one-on-one training, staggered start times, and in-community placements help take the stress out of learning, making it easier for students who are often balancing their educational obligations with work and family duties, he said.
“Sometimes it will take a person two years to do a one-year program, and we’re OK with that,” Stewart said.
The proof of NETC’s success is in its graduation rate. Stewart estimates 85 per cent of students are employed by their First Nation upon graduation, and it’s success by design.
The school is keen on putting in place the measures needed to gives its students every chance at achieving their goals by aligning their programming with community needs.
“If you look at our course program titles, they line up with job titles in the First Nation community; that's the niche,” Stewart said. “So we don't offer program titles or courses of jobs that are not available in the First Nation communities.”
NETC currently has a total enrolment of 276 students, hailing from Canadian First Nation communities and U.S. tribes, and Stewart’s goal is to have 100 students enrolled annually at its North Bay campus.
In preparation, renovations on 5,000 square feet of space are currently underway to expand labs supporting the school’s personal support worker and early childhood educator programs.
Stewart expects those renovations to be complete by the end of 2019.