By Ian Ross
Compared to their urban brethren, economic development workers in northern and remote communities face a whole tangle of challenges that can seem overwhelming at times. Almost total unemployment, condemned buildings, waste, water and other infrastructure problems, to name a few.
It can almost seem like trying to start a community from scratch just to maintain basic services and social wellbeing.
For inexperienced economic development officers plunging into this type of environment without much formal training, it can be more than one person can handle, which leads to a constant turnover of professionals, especially on impoverished First Nations reserves.
“It’s very demoralizing for them because they don’t have the skills to work at it,” says Linda Gordon, a co-founder of the new community economic and social development bachelor of arts (honours) program at Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Sault Ste. Marie post-secondary institution rolled out a one-of-a-kind program last fall that marries economic and social approaches to community development for small northern towns and communities with fewer than 20,000 people.
The program prepares graduates to become certified officers with either the Council for Advancement of Native Development Officers or the Economic Developers’ Association of Canada (EDAC).
More than three years in the making because of the curriculum design and approvals process, the BA program was just a natural progression based on feedback from development professionals attending classes at the university and students interested in pursuing jobs in that field.
School officials discovered there was a huge demand for that kind of education and that the university already had the pieces in place through the business administration, geography, social welfare, Aboriginal learning and other departments to launch a program that could be on a par with graduate level courses offered at the University of Waterloo and other Canadian universities.
In the multi-disciplinary, two-track program, students are grouped together for the first two years before branching off in their third and fourth years to specialize in either social or economic development.
“Development in these kinds of northern communities might be different than you would find in an urban centre because you don’t have the human and financial resources,” says Judy Syrette, a Native student counsellor and academic adviser.
“There are some communities that are so devastated by unemployment that it causes social problems as well, and in order to get a community healthy again to be economically sustainable, the two things go together.”
A big component of the program is the meshing of the theoretical learning with practical experience.
Program officials are now looking for co-op placements for post first-year students or by third-year for field placements, the equivalent of 12 months of paid experience, to enable graduates to be job-ready.
Alice Corbière, the program’s co-ordinator who plans on launching a nationwide promotional campaign, says there is no problem for students looking for jobs, not only in the economic development fields, but also as day-care workers, in prevention and intervention programs, real estate, urban planning and so forth.
Without much initial advertising fanfare, already 15 students, mostly mature Aboriginal students, are enrolled in the first class.
Four students are working on a second degree; some are business program and community college transfers.
Initially, class size was limited to 20, but inquiries from across Canada have been steadily growing, enough to cause them to consider running two sections next year.
“This has been targeted as a growth area for the university,” says Gordon. “So we wouldn’t limit it.”
Nor would the university turn anyone away, adds Syrette.
One early offshoot of the program is a spring institute slated for mid-June.
The intensive one-week (June 14-21) provides professional upgrading classes for economic and community development officers and incorporates the program’s main concepts, principles and values.
EDAC members who have successfully completed the Algoma University College degree in community economic and social development, along with three years experience in the profession have satisfied EDAC’s stringent professional development requirements and are eligible to write the Ec.D. exam.