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Engaging First Nations in business

Ch'nook Scholar Program helps aboriginal youth gain training and experience to succeed

By Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun

James Dekker is on track to finish his last semester in Kwantlen Polytechnic University's bachelor of business administration program with a major in human resources. He is part of the Ch'nook Scholar Program, a provincewide initiative established in 2002 that aims to get more First Nations students involved in business studies at the post-secondary level. The 22-year-old has also managed to do most of this schooling while working full-time in business internships. Since it was launched, 125 students have become Ch'nook scholars, 122 in B.C. and three in Alberta. Ch'nook also has programs for secondary school students and offers a management certificate program. Dekker's maternal grandmother is from Manitoba's Pine Creek First Nation.

Q Tell me about the Ch'nook Scholar Program.

A The thought is that for future economic independence and prosperity among aboriginal communities, business is going to be one of the driving factors. The idea is to have aboriginal people not only as entrepreneurs owning their own businesses, but also getting them engaged with corporations and in the overall Canadian business community. Those two things are thought of as contributing to the advancement and future prosperity and success for First Nations communities.

Q What does being part of the Ch'nook Scholar Program mean to you?

A For me, above all else, as a very Caucasian-looking aboriginal student studying in Canada and growing up in Surrey, I didn't have much connection to my aboriginal heritage or culture all through elementary and high school. Once I set foot in university, that's when I really became aware of my family history. Through the Ch'nook program, I've been able to make that connection with my aboriginal culture and learn more about my history. I think that's super important for everyone - to know where you come from, to know where your grandmother grew up or where your family comes from generations in the past. It's pretty revealing and pretty inspiring to hear about where you come from.

Q How does the Ch'nook Scholar Program connect you to your family history?

A Every year in the program, we get to attend a regional gathering where all the students in the program gather for a three-day event that includes activities such as having elders share stories or we would do talking circles with a guest speaker.

Q What has the program meant to you as far as your business experience?

A At the regional gatherings we do professional development workshops in the form of speeches - having someone talk to us about business etiquette, for example. And then there is also volunteering opportunities where we go into high schools and provide mentorship to First Nations kids. There are also networking opportunities. I've attended several signature events in Vancouver, such as the B.C. Aboriginal Business Awards or the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business Annual Gala.

Q You've also done paid internships with Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Vancity and now you're doing a paid internship with HSBC in the human resources department. Tell me about that:

A The internship at HSBC is in human resources and I'm working on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Q How have you managed to do all of these internships while going to school at the same time?

A It's been challenging, to say the least. I've been working fulltime, 9-5, but I've been able to take night classes two to three times a week. On weekends, I do homework and study. To say the least, it's been challenging, but it's also rewarding as well.

Q Why did you choose human resources as your major?

A I really fell into human resources, but through my work at C.I.C. and through my education, I've gained an appreciation for the role that HR plays in an organization's success. I believe one of the most significant reasons organizations are successful is if their employees are supported and doing the absolute best that they can.

Q What do you hope to achieve in the future?

A I want to be able to have a rewarding career with an organization where I can make a huge impact, that's ultimately what drives me. One of the biggest indicators of success for me is what happens in my personal life, more than in my professional working life. I do have plans to have a family, but the first step is to establish myself with an organization that supports that pursuit AND that will allow me to have a rewarding career as well.

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