Na­tive em­ploy­ment

ACOSYS CON­SULT­INg helps abo­rig­i­nals gain valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence in the pri­vate sec­tor by fa­cil­i­tat­ing in­tern­ships across Canada

Montreal Gazette - - Front Page - DANIEL J. ROWE SPE­CIAL TO THE GAZETTE

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.”

DAVE SI­D­AWAY/ THE GAZETTE

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.

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