ACOSYS CONSULTINg helps aboriginals gain valuable experience in the private sector by facilitating internships across Canada
Acosys Consulting helps smooth way for aboriginals looking for work experience off the reserve.
“It really shows them that we’re more than capable of doing the work that everyone else can.”
For aboriginals searching for work off the reserve, it can be a rocky, frustrating path. One Montreal company has made smoothing that road its prime motivation by providing meaningful experience and business education for First Nations people.
Acosys Consulting is an aboriginal-owned company founded in 2006 by labour lawyer Julie Lepage and business analyst and project manager David Acco. More than 70 per cent of its staff are native, and it won the Toronto Board of Trade Business Excellence award in November.
The company started by providing consulting services for mainstream private-sector companies. In 2009, it initiated an aboriginal internship program that functions across the country.
“Acosys really gave me this opportunity to work within the private sector in Montreal,” said Joni Diabo, 28, who is halfway through a one-year internship at management consulting firm Accenture in the HR department. “It allowed me to show this really large private-sector company that I’m more than capable of doing the work in human resources.”
The spark for Acosys came from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Its report in 1996 stated that “many aboriginal youth see themselves facing an economic wasteland.”
The problem was twofold: training and experience.
“This was announced in 1996, and then 2000 comes by and we’re hearing the same thing and then in 2005 we’re hearing the same argument again,” Acco said. “Finally we piped up and said: ‘What’s anybody doing about this?’ ”
Programs and money were available, but little was changing. The unemployment rate for aboriginals was 14.8 per cent in 2006, while the rest of the country was at 6.3.
“We were always puzzled by the question: ‘How come there are all these opportunities, but so few of us take them on?’ ” Lepage said.
From the outset, Lepage and Acco promoted an aboriginal presence in companies such as Bombardier, Bank of Montreal and Royal Bank of Canada by helping develop a policy for aboriginal markets and services. Their main focus is consulting work on information technology and human resources.
“They’re looking at meeting the federal targets on having enough representation on having the four groups identified in the law,” Lepage said.
The groups identified by the Canadian corporate social responsibility model are women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and aboriginals. Companies with higher representation in the four areas receive higher subsidies from the government.
Acosys’ founders were adamant about taking the lead as an aboriginal company in terms of hiring.
“Every time we do a mandate, we will make sure that at least 33 per cent” of the people working on it are aboriginal, Acco said. “There were a lot of shell companies at the time, and still are, where these companies are winning mandates on being
JONI DIABO ABORIGINAL INTERN
an aboriginal entity, but they were hiring non-aboriginal people to do their work.”
Ottawa requires companies to have 33 per cent of their staff of aboriginal descent to be classified as an aboriginal business. However, the rules don’t specify positions. Acco insisted that his aboriginal content is placed in positions involving dealing with customers and product delivery.
“If we want to identify ourselves as an aboriginal business, there are certain responsibilities that come with it, such as aboriginal capacity and diversity through engaging aboriginal resources,” he said. “That is what we decided to do as a company.”
Nine of Acosys’ 12 employees are aboriginal, in addition to the five interns now in year-long programs.
The money for Acosys’ internship program comes from commissions from consulting contracts, along with government grants.
Lepage tapped into the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Agreement (AHRDA) grants under the former Liberal government, which became the ASETS program under the Conservative government.
Acosys raises $27,000 per year, per intern, through grants and then provides the rest through commissions.
Interns’ annual wages run between $35,000 and $43,000, depending on experience and qualifications.
The formula is working. Interns are finding work they never had access to through traditional routes, while Acosys can undercut on contracts by subsidizing their wages.
“It’s exactly how aboriginal people learn: practice and theory at the same time,” Lepage said.
James Mckay, a diversity recruiter for the Bank of Montreal, has worked with Acosys and David Acco since 2011.
“It has been a positive experience,” Mckay said. “They have learned quickly and adjust to what our needs are, and they’re very understanding that things in the financial industry don’t always move as fast as they would like.”
For Mckay, an Ojibway from the Batchewana nation in Ontario, the advantage offered by aboriginal internship programs such as Acosys is welcome. He said internships are typically delegated to employees’ relatives within the company, or from top students across Canada.
Neither route is a problem unless you are trying to rectify systemic problems for aboriginals.
“You’re looking at two totally different sample sizes,” Mckay said. “You’re going to find a lot of really great students in the mainstream, and it’s not that easy to find that many students in the aboriginal because there’s not enough of them going to school. Therefore, if they get an unfair advantage, great, because in my eyes it’s just levelling the playing field.”
For many interns, it is often about disproving stereotypes and succeeding off the reserve.
“Aboriginals can work within the private sector, and they are capable of the work,” Accenture intern Joni Diabo said. “A lot of those companies have a lot of stereotypes. They think of those stereotypes when they think of you coming from an aboriginal reserve. It really shows them that we’re more than capable of doing the work that everyone else can.”
In the past, Diabo tried, like many young 20-somethings in Kahnawake, to find work with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the community’s prime public body. Diabo has a five-year-old daughter and attends night classes in addition to her internship, and wanted a decent wage to support her young family.
“It’s really difficult to get in, to find your foot in the door,” she said. “Acosys gave me that opportunity to look outside the public sector, which I had never done before. Now that I’m there, I don’t want to look back.”
Acosys Consulting co-founders Julie Lepage, an Ojibway from Nipissing First Nation, and David Acco, a Cree-Métis from Cumberland House, Sask., set up their Montreal company in 2006 to give natives training and experience.