Every single time a First Nations intern comes to the Imagination Group’s Calgary office, the same thing happens. “They see our showroom, reception area, boardroom, offices and a warehouse – and they’re in shock,” says the company’s president Colby Delorme, who is Métis. “It usually takes a day or two and then they’ll say, ‘So you own this?’”

“Shared experience has been proven to have such a positive effect on people. It curbs the time it takes to learn things on your own and allows for someone to be that much more successful in a shorter period of time.” - Colby Delorme, President of Imagination Group

Certainly the Imagination Group is impressive, with a promotional products company featuring Aboriginal artists, a consulting branch and the service Authentically Aboriginal, which certifies Aboriginal art, but that’s not the point. Success is catching. “The youths’ only understanding of what the world has to offer our people is this very small area in which they grew up in,” says Delorme. “It’s not just the reserves. It’s that they haven’t seen enough positive things even within their own extended families.”

The best part: “They realize someone in their community did it, so that must mean there’s an opportunity for them. That’s the most powerful thing, and I see it every time,” says Delorme.

The positive impact of mentorship

That’s why Delorme volunteered to create a new mentorship program called Influence: Inspiring Our Future Leaders that will cater to third- and fourth-year Aboriginal students facing the crucial transition from university to the work world.

“Shared experience has been proven to have such a positive effect on people. It curbs the time it takes to learn things on your own and allows for someone to be that much more successful in a shorter period of time,” says Delorme, who worked with Bruce Randall, the CEO of the Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council to design the program.

A program like this thrives on collaboration, which is why they have been engaging government, Aboriginal organizers, community leaders, and employers every step of the way.

A skills solution

“Aboriginal youth are one of the greatest opportunities we’ve got,” says Eric Newell, a former oil executive and founder/Board Chair of CAREERS: The Next Generation, a non-profit that connects youth to careers in trades and health care through info days, summer camps, internships and more, and also caters to First Nations youth through its Aboriginal Youth Initiative.

Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing part of our population, he notes. “If we work towards getting Aboriginal unemployment down to what it is for non-Aboriginal youth, we could go a long way to solving the skills shortage in Canada, and Alberta,” says Newell. “We’ve got to start looking at this as not just a problem, but a great opportunity.”

Knowledge opens doors

April Papequash, 19, of Edmonton had the opportunity to tour hospitals as part of Careers’ Health Care internship program when she was in Grade 11.

“This program helped me see that there’s so much more to health care than just being a doctor. There were so many more things I could do,” she says. She still wants to be a doctor, but she has raised the bar higher. Now a first-year biology student at University of Alberta, she plans to become a surgeon.

“Education and economic opportunities are the great equalizers.” - Eric Newell, former oil executive and founder/Board Chair of CAREERS

A helping hand

Another Edmonton youth, Jordan Rain, 18, who started his Registered Apprenticeship Program in carpentry this year while still in Grade 12, was connected to his employer BDC Bulldozer Construction through Careers. “By the time I’m 24, I’ll have my journeyman ticket,” he says. “You make a lot of money in the trades. You can build your own home, and that’s what I plan to do. I have a son, and I’m going to build him a treehouse.” It’s not about giving Aboriginal youth a handout, stresses Newell. “It’s a hand up,” he says. “Education and economic opportunities are the great equalizers.”

Pick a purpose

Glen Armstrong, who is Métis, is a family physician in High Prairie. At the University of Alberta, he mentored other Aboriginal students. “I remember one guy saying, ‘My class is bigger than the reserve.’” Armstrong also gives talks to high school classes on the reserves. “I tell them, ‘You have to pick a purpose. It took me two tries to get into med school. I’m not the smartest guy. If I can do it, you can do it.’”