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Aboriginals stakeholders in economy (11/01)

BIRCH ISLAND - Northern Ontario generally experiences unemployment rates that are significantly higher than the rest of the province.

BIRCH ISLAND - Northern Ontario generally experiences unemployment rates that are significantly higher than the rest of the province. Now multiply that unemployment rate by five or six times, or even more, to get a picture of the current unemployment levels in First Nation communities in Northern Ontario.

This situation is compounded by the fact that there is growing youth population amongst Aboriginal people for which there are no new jobs in the community.

The good news is that there are concentrated and co-operative efforts being taken by Aboriginal people and First Nations to take their place, and participate, in this northern economy. These efforts have resulted in very real Northern Ontario success stories of which we can all be proud.

For one, the skill and education levels of Aboriginal people, who make up a significant percentage of the Northern Ontario population, are increasing significantly, particularly among the youth.

In this current school year, there are 2,070 Aboriginal students from Northern Ontario enrolled in post-secondary studies, most of whom want to live and work in the North. To assist with skill development, there are Aboriginal training and employment organizations in every region throughout the North who sponsor certified training for individuals or groups. These organizations also provide wage subsidies for companies, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, wishing to provide training on the job to Aboriginal trainees.

In addition, there are opportunities to hire Aboriginal post-secondary graduates through the various government internship programs. Internships can open doors for ongoing employment of young people, help bring new ideas to your company or organization, as well as create bridges between Aboriginal people and Northern Ontario businesses.

Many Aboriginal people and First Nations recognized that business development is the necessary path to generate jobs and strengthen local economies. In this part of the province over the past 10 years, more than 800 new Aboriginal businesses have been created. That is more than eight times the number of Aboriginal businesses created in the last century! These businesses are in every sector including forestry, underwater logging, GIS and computer technologies, tourism, heavy equipment and transportation, health food products and the medical professions, just to name a few.

The growth of Aboriginal business has taken on such momentum due partly to the works of Aboriginal-owned institutions such as the Nishnawbi-Aski Development Fund, the Waubetek Business Development Corp. and the Wakenagun Development Corp.

These regional organizations were created through the foresight and vision of First Nation leaders. With financial support from Aboriginal Business Canada and the Community Futures Program (FedNor/HRDC), these organizations received an initial investment fund of $5 million. Together, these groups have invested more than $21 million directly into the Northern Ontario economy by helping to establish new businesses...owned by Aboriginals. Another $33 million has been leveraged by these organizations for businesses and community projects over the past 10 years.

The results of these investments have been astounding. For example, as a lender, Waubetek (which means "the future" in the Ojibwa language) has been able to develop one of the best loan portfolios of all developmental lenders in Canada with a loan loss rate of less than 0.05 per cent, which strongly dispels the notion that Aboriginal borrowers are very high risk.

When new jobs and businesses are established in First Nation communities, all surrounding communities and regions benefit.

Dawn Madahbee is general manager at Waubetek Business Development Corp. in Birch Island.