Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s (MKO) Northern Employment Commuter Program wrapped up its fourth year on Aug 17 with a graduation ceremony for nine individuals.
The program and annual workforce development partnership between MKO, the Manitoba government and Vale and is in place to help young people from outlying communities find gainful employment in Thompson.
Commuters from this year’s program travelled from Wabowden and Nelson House and worked at a variety of Thompson businesses including, Arctic Signs, Canadian Tire, Northern Inn, Ramada, Giant Tiger, Safeway, and Smook Contractors.
David Monias spoke at the graduation on behalf of MKO Grand Chief David Harper and made note of the importance of programs such as the Northern Commuter Program, and promoting a positive image for Aboriginal youth.
“We hear a lot of negative things about our communities,” said Monias, “but it’s only a small group who are creating those images. We need to be promoting programs such as this.”
MKO First Nation Employment and Training Officer Freda Lepine was an instrumental figure with the program since is inception four years ago.
“This year was very successful and we had an 80 per cent success rate as far as graduates of the program, and one of our participants has even gone on to work full time at Smook,” said Lepine, “we nearly triple the $25,000 investment from Vale by putting almost $75,000 back in to the community, and the commuters are also able to support their families with their incomes.”
While the money brought in can’t be understated, Penny Byer, who spoke on behalf of Vale, made clear that the experience gained through the program is invaluable.
“Often times, your first job is about what you learn, not what you earn,” said Byer, “you get an idea of what it is you want to do in the future, or what you don’t want to do.”
Charles Nyabeze of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs has been another integral piece of the program’s growth and success over the years and spoke to how far it has come and where he would like to see it go in the future.
“We had very few students when the program started and we were limited as to who we could bring in,” said Nyabeze, “now it is open to everyone and with more funding and support we’re seeing more people move on to full time positions.”
The vision shared by Nyabeze and Lepine is that the program will one day evolve from a Summer only program to year-round.
“The way we grow the program is to hopefully have some of these graduates come back and act as mentors to our future participants,” said Nyabeze, “this will create a cycle to keep the program running strong.”
Vacancy issues in town is something that Lepine would like to see addressed, as it has held a few participants back from staying on with their job placements.
“We have had some employers approach us, wanting to keep the students on, but there is no place for them to stay in town, so once the program is finished there isn’t a way for them to get to work. I’d like to see some apartment blocks designated for our students,” said Lepine.
While the Commuter Program operates solely in the summer for the time being, it is still a year round project for Lepine, who joked that once the graduation was finished she would have to get to work on next year’s program.
Nyabeze says that the element of discipline acquired by the students and job experience gained are critical in building toward their futures.
“There is something to be said for commuting and having to get up to an alarm and adhere to a schedule,” said Nyabeze, “it also needs to be said that we’re not taking away jobs from people in Thompson, this program is to give these students a chance, not an advantage.”