Keith McIntosh can pinpoint a defining moment when he resolved to use his position and experience in information technology (IT) to help effect change for Indigenous peoples living in Canada.
Selected to participate in the 2015 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference, McIntosh was among 250 leaders from various backgrounds and industries to spend 10 days travelling the country learning about life in other parts of Canada.
Visiting an elementary school on the Kahnawake First Nation, located on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, McIntosh said he could smell a strong, unpleasant odour coming from the school’s drinking water, all while staring across the river at the bustling City of Montréal.
“I don’t understand how we can have schools without drinking water and see the skyline of Montréal at the same time,” said McIntosh, the founder, president and CEO of the software-testing firm Professional Quality Assurance (PQA) Testing.
“I think that corporate Canada has a responsibility to open doors and opportunities, but I think, just as a Canadian, it’s embarrassing that it happens in our country.”
A nationwide shortage in IT professionals – to the tune of 190,000 people – means software-testing work from other companies often goes overseas to meet demand, yet there remains an untapped pool of able, underemployed workers at home.
“Canada ships hundreds of thousands of jobs for software to be tested by Indian or Chinese outsourcing groups,” McIntosh said.
“If we can do that, we can ship it to Sudbury or Sault Ste. Marie or Moose Factory – pick a spot.”
Back home in Fredericton, N.B., McIntosh set to work creating a PQA offshoot – Professional Aboriginal Testing Organization (PLATO) – which trains and employs Indigenous people in how to test software before it goes to market.
Eligible applicants must be of Indigenous descent and have, at minimum, their high school diploma. But the six-month course is offered free of charge, and once applicants finish the training, they’re guaranteed a full-time job offer with the company.
McIntosh said roughly 75 per cent of successful applicants complete the course, and about 65 per cent go on to take the full-time job.
Some will find they don’t like the work and move on, while others decide to continue with post-secondary education or go on to expand their careers with other companies.
“We count those as successes, not just the success of the ones that are still working for us,” McIntosh said. “It’s the success of the ones that have gone somewhere else and taken their career further.”
Twelve people graduated from the first cohort, and PLATO has since put 145 people through the course, which is financed by PQA, the nations, and some government funding.
“Every time we bill our project, we bill the services and we reinvest that money into the next office,” McIntosh said.
The company has locations in New Brunswick (Fredericton and Miramichi), Nova Scotia (Halifax), Saskatchewan (Regina), Alberta (Calgary and Edmonton), British Columbia (Vancouver), and Ontario (Toronto). It set up its most recent location in Sault Ste. Marie in September.
That office, which largely draws on workers from the Garden River and Batchewana First Nations, along with the local Métis community, is expected to employ up to 60 people.
PLATO was initially drawn to the Sault during 2016 Aboriginal Business Match, a business matchmaking event concentrating on Indigenous business. But McIntosh said the follow-up efforts of UP, the city’s ongoing initiative to create a gaming cluster in Sault Ste. Marie, was also instrumental in wooing PLATO.
“We’re focusing on Sault Ste. Marie to make it a centre of excellence around the gaming industry because of the strength of Ontario Lottery being there, and Canadian Bank Note, and some of the work that the UP folks have done trying to attract a cluster there,” he said. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
It’s taken time, patience, and understanding to get to this point. Before establishing an office, McIntosh works closely with an area’s Indigenous communities, friendship centres, and training organizations to establish trust and respect between them, slowly whittling down barriers that have built up over years of mistrust and broken promises.
There are 647 individual nations in Canada, each with its own values and priorities, and navigating that can be a challenge, McIntosh noted. Some of PLATO’s employees had never worked before, and many are living with multigenerational trauma inflicted by the restrictive and abusive residential school system.
“I think we’ve (colonial Canada) done a lot of damage, whether it’s the residential school systems or the latent bias,” McIntosh said.
“We’ve created a lot of problems.”
His goal is to employ 1,000 people spread amongst 20 offices across Canada in or near First Nation communities. Ultimately, he’d like to see the work go to Far North communities where the opportunities are scarcer and education often ends at Grade 8.
“It gives a reason for kids to stay in school and get better, because if you don’t have any reason to finish school, if you don’t have any hope of using it and going forward, then why are you going to finish it?” McIntosh said.
“But if you can put a reason and an opportunity there where they can see it, then in a generation or two, we can change it from ‘getting to Grade 8 and then go work’ to ‘I want to stay in school so I can work for this company,’ or ‘I want to stay in school and go to university so I can create my own company.’”
While PLATO’s approach is one of providing opportunities, McIntosh emphasizes the company isn’t a charity – the for-profit business needs to secure software-testing contracts in order to be successful.
He’s hopeful the warm reception PLATO has received in Sault Ste. Marie will be backed by companies willing to do business a little differently.
“The answer to our problems is not charity or make-work projects,” McIntosh said.
“The answer is to give real, meaningful work to people, and that creates a sense of pride, and a sense of teamwork and depth, and a sense of control in them that they’re doing work that’s valuable, meaningful work.”