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Out of the Shadows

Aboriginal youth unemployment is twice the Canadian average. For one Toronto firm, this sorry statistic is a call to action

John MacIntyre (BCom ’78) is co-founder and partner of Birch Hill Equity Partners. Thanks to a $1 million gift from Birch Hill, Smith School of Business has established an award to be given each year to an Aboriginal student entering the Queen’s Commerce program. In this video and edited transcript, MacIntyre explains what Canadian businesses can do to bring more Aboriginal youth into Canada’s workforce. 

Our interest in young Aboriginal Canadians goes back a few years. I along with some colleagues spent time in one of the communities in Northwest Territories and subsequently had exposure to other northern communities. While we met terrific people, the large social problems we saw overwhelmed us. It got us thinking about what a businessperson in Toronto with business activities across the country could do to change things in a positive way.

The conditions that exist for many Aboriginal Canadians are not acceptable. It’s not right, in a country as prosperous as Canada, to have people with no hope, no income, and living within terrible economic and social situations. Aboriginal Canadians make up about four percent of the population but their youth unemployment rate is twice the Canadian average, which is already unacceptably high.

We realized as an organization that one thing we can do is employ people across our companies; we have about 30,000 employees. And we’re involved with many companies including banks, accounting firms, law firms, and many others that employ tens of thousands of people as well. So how can we orient ourselves to be more proactive and engage as a company in our day-to-day employment and employee development activities to be more focused on Aboriginal Canadians?

Four percent of the population of Canada are indigenous. If our companies could employ four percent in management and entry-level positions, that would be fantastic. I know some companies have set a goal of 20 percent. That sounds like a lofty number but, if you put it in context, more than 20 percent of the population of Canadians are Aboriginal. Wouldn’t it be great to flip that and have 20 percent of our workforce being Aboriginal Canadians? We think it’s achievable for us and for other Canadian businesses.

Cultural training really gives non-Aboriginal Canadians the chance to understand the root causes of the problems these communities face

One piece of advice we offer is to have employees go through cultural training. We all hold a stereotype of what it means to be an Aboriginal Canadian, and having cultural training really changes that view. It gives non-Aboriginal Canadians the chance to understand the root causes of the problems these communities face, and some of their successes.

The second thing I would suggest is to be thoughtful about how you hire people. We tend to fall into patterns that often leave out large components of the population, particularly Aboriginal Canadians. Be thoughtful about how you reach out and find new employees.

Developing Future Aboriginal Leaders

Birch Hill has a long association with Queen’s. We funded a scholarship for the Queen’s Commerce program for a number of years. We wanted to re-orient that scholarship to Aboriginal students. This community has seen enough disappointments and promises unfulfilled over the years. Having this as an endowed scholarship is an important to do, to give it the prominence it deserves.

We hope there will be a significant increase in the number of Aboriginals who can attend Queen’s Commerce. Queen’s is able to seek out and attract, and this scholarship will go a long way towards helping people attend who would otherwise not be able to afford it. And we hope it will inspire others to create scholarships for the Aboriginal population.

Queen’s Commerce develops great leaders, and the Aboriginal community needs great leaders.