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Recognizing that the rising demand for knowledge workers in Canada presents unique career opportunities for traditionally underdeveloped and underused communities, aboriginal professionals from around the country established the nonprofit Canadian Aboriginal Science and Engineering Association (CASEA) in 1993. CASEA's goal is to expose aboriginal youth to potential science and engineering careers before they reach the postsecondary level. Hoping to be a catalyst for the advancement of aboriginal people in the new economy, CASEA targets children as early as elementary school by "providing science and math camps, teacher training, and mentorship programs to strengthen aboriginal students' educational background in math and science and to prepare them for the academic pressures of postsecondary school life."

The 1.2-million-strong aboriginal community is growing at almost twice the rate of the general population, according to data collected by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. As aboriginal youths move into the workforce, they face tough competition for jobs in science and technology. Skills development is a critical factor for success and has, in the past, impeded any advancement of aboriginal people in these areas. A Canadian government study of the 22,000-strong science and technical community in the federal public service [ Visible Minorities in the Scientific and Technical Occupations (1998)] found that aboriginal people were severely underrepresented and their numbers were clustered in selected occupational groups such as nursing and general technicians. Overall, aboriginal people represent less than 1% of the public sector workforce in most science and technology occupations.

Aboriginal youth are responding to the challenges of the new economy by seeking postsecondary education in greater numbers. The number of aboriginal students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities soared from 200 in the mid-1960s to 27,000 in 1999 (see " Post-Secondary Education for Status Indians and Inuit." The dramatic shift has been partially attributed to First Nations peoples (a term that replaced the word "Indians" in the 1970s) gaining local control of education in 1973 and changing the on-reserve school system from a more traditional education to one mixed with First Nations history, culture, and values.

But major hurdles still impede aboriginal people looking for careers in science and technology. Family and social problems, lack of community support, poor access to quality education, relocation from their communities, and a shortage of science and technology role models are just some of the problems that youth living on reserves have to deal with, says Mervin Dewasha, founder, president, and treasurer of CASEA. "Aboriginal youth are four times more likely to have a successful education off reserve," he explains. "Children growing up on reserves are only exposed to a limited number of occupations, such as medical staff, teachers, and social workers." The problem is worsened by geographical constraints. "Convincing trained professionals to visit remote communities is expensive and difficult," he says.

CASEA takes an active role in reaching out to aboriginal youth, both on and off reserves. Dewasha is convinced that more emphasis should be placed on educating and directing young aboriginal people into high-demand areas and that increasing the number of aboriginal students in science and technology is an important step toward the community's transition from being social dependents to contributing to the economy. CASEA exists to encourage the relatively youthful aboriginal population to take advantage of opportunities of a modern knowledge-based economy, opportunities that aboriginal people were unable to benefit from in the past.

For the last 8 years, CASEA has worked with the National Research Council of Canada, the private sector, and aboriginal organizations to host a biannual event, the National Aboriginal Career Symposium (NACS). The 2-day symposium is designed to help aboriginal youth discover the world of science and technology and raise their interest in careers in engineering and science. The career fair attracts more than 1000 students from grade 6 to the postsecondary level from across the country, many of whom are supported by their communities' fund-raising efforts. The key features of NACS are career-oriented workshops, cultural presentations, and exhibits by government departments, private corporations, universities, and colleges, all aimed at providing students with information to help them choose their career paths. The message to the students is clear: Stay in school, focus your educational choices on high-demand occupations, and understand that a career in science and technology does not necessarily mean abandoning your cultural heritage.

Lynnea Duncan, co-chair of the 1997 and 1999 NACS, says that the NACS was instrumental in introducing aboriginal youth to the myriad of career opportunities in science and technology. "The hands-on workshops attempted to show science in a fun and exciting light. Youth were also given the opportunity to interact with aboriginal role models in the field of science, technology, architecture ... even the only aboriginal astronaut," she says. "Their stories and personal statements were important and encouraging. They conveyed to youth that the pursuit and achievement of education and careers in S&T are possible for them." Duncan added that NACS also provided workshops for teachers that identified unique and interesting ways of teaching math and science to youth, and she said the presence of elders helped NACS demonstrate strong links between the traditional and the scientific-technological.

CASEA is helping organize another symposium this year. Dewasha says that more organizations are willing to come on board with funding and support as the popularity and size of the career fair grows and as the potential for improving public relations and recruitment is realized. He remains optimistic that CASEA's efforts to improve aboriginal representation in the science and technology workforce will succeed in the future.

REACHING OUT

The 1999 National Aboriginal Career Symposium featured an essay-writing competition, sponsored by Scotiabank. The essay contest was open to students from grades 6 to 13, and participants were asked to submit an essay of 300 words or more on one of the following topics:

  • What role do my parents, teachers, and elders play in my education?

  • What contributions do aboriginal peoples bring to science and technology?

  • What is the importance of aboriginal role models?

The winning essays can be read at the NACS '99 Web site.