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First Nations STEM mentorship program opens to high school students

The head of an agency that gives technical advice to First Nations throughout Ontario hopes a new mentorship program will open young Indigenous people's eyes to their own potential.

The head of an agency that gives technical advice to First Nations throughout Ontario hopes a new mentorship program will open young Indigenous people's eyes to their own potential.

Melanie Debassige, executive director of the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation, said many First Nations youth are unaware of the career opportunities in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The non-profit corporation hopes to have 30 Indigenous high school students enrol in the mentorship program this summer. 

"It goes hand-in-hand with our vision to create technical self-reliance in First Nations communities, but also it's part of our mandate to create the technical leaders of tomorrow," said Debassige, a member of the Anishinabek Nation.

"Our communities right now, they need water operators, they need engineers."

Debassige said that working in the trades would also be financially beneficial for Indigenous youth, with many tradespeople such as millwrights, electricians, and plumbers making close to six-figure salaries.

"This is going to affect the economy in First Nations, and so then you're going to see money not going out, but money being spent within the community," said Debassige.

"So the dollar, if it gets flipped over one, two, three times, that's going to help the First Nations' economy. So I look at this more from a community development perspective."

For now, students and their mentors will meet online, with in-person interactions including hands-on learning planned for this autumn, when COVID-19 restrictions will hopefully be eased.

Janet Galant, an infrastructure specialist with the corporation, consults with First Nations across Ontario on project management. When she learned the agency was going to offer mentorships to Indigenous high school students interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, she jumped at the chance to help.

"I think it's important to show the students that there's all these opportunities working in the communities or even outside of it, specifically in STEM," said Galant, a member of Saugeen First Nation who grew up in London, Ont.

"We need more Indigenous youths to move in this direction."

Galant, who studied architectural technology, said that throughout her career, she's been in formal and informal mentorship relationships and it's always helped her professional development.

"I learned to appreciate what you can learn from other people, whether it's in the capacity of the work you're doing or life skills," said Galant.

The mentorship program will be open to Indigenous people in grades 7-12, either on reserves or in urban centres.

There are no age restrictions, in recognition of the fact that many Indigenous people are working to complete their secondary school diplomas in their 20s. 

Both Debassige and Galant also said they hope gender won't be seen as an obstacle for anyone who is considering applying. 

Galant said she hopes to mentor young women and Debassige said anyone who identifies as transgender, non-binary, or two-spirit is welcome.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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