NVIATS helps North Island First Nations people overcome obstacles to employment

There’s no better feeling for North Vancouver Island Aboriginal Training Society (NVIATS) staff than helping people who have given up hope.

That opinion comes from Sherry Simms, who has worked at NVIATS for 18 years, as manager since 2011.

“I think the most satisfying is when you have someone who walks in your door who won’t lift his head to look in your eyes,” she says in an interview. “When they come back after being there for a week or two and they’re smiling and they want to be there, that’s the most satisfying, and they’re actually able to hold their head up and feel confident and no longer fearful.”

NVIATS is responsible for employment and training initiatives for all Aboriginal people from north of Qualicum Beach to Port Hardy as well as isolated native communities on the Central Coast and the Powell River area. It has offices in Campbell River and Alert Bay.

Since April 1, 2014, NVIATS has trained 1,899 Aboriginal people. Of those, 1,123 found employment, Simms says.

There are special challenges, she admits, including resistance to or outright refusal by some employers to hire First Nations People.

“Some employers are easy. They come to us to recruit Aboriginal people because they know their loyalty and their strengths,” Simms says.

Ski-Hi Scaffolding in Campbell River is especially supportive of NVIATS, she mentions.

“Others wouldn’t hire someone who is Aboriginal even if they had every skill that they required,” says Simms, a Métis from Newfoundland. “We try to be positive and work with the employers who want to work with us. We have quite a few.”

Everyone who receives NVIATS training gets what Simms calls a pep talk.

“Sometimes you don’t just represent yourself in the workforce; sometimes you’re looked at as a complete race. We try to reinforce that, ‘Sometimes you’re representing your entire race, so we want you to do well.’ ”

The struggling North Island economy is another issue, especially when employers hire from outside the area.

“We had hoped with the John Hart Dam and with the hospital build that we would see an increase (in employment opportunities for North Island First Nations people).

“Unfortunately, the majority of workers on both those sites are not from those communities. They’re from Victoria, Nanaimo, Vancouver and farther away than that.

“It really didn’t build the economy in Campbell River, that’s for sure.”

The geography adds a degree of difficulty for NVIATS staff, who are responsible for remote North Island native communities that include Hopetown and Kingcome on the Central Coast.

Covering such a huge, sparsely populated region is a big challenge for the 10 people in the Campbell River office and one program officer in Alert Bay.

“The cost of getting training to Gilford (Island) or Kingcome can be five times the cost of delivering a program in Campbell River.”

As Simms explains, it can cost NVIATS at least $1,200 to send one person to Kingcome for just one day.

That’s not the only obstacle NVIATS staff face in their efforts to serve their clients.

The society gets the bulk of its funding from Service Canada through the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy.

“We haven’t seen an increase in funds since 1996,” Simms notes. “We’re expected to do a lot more than we used to do and of course the cost of living has changed quite a bit since 1996.”

That’s an important reason why NVIATS relies heavily on its Community Partnership Program in which “our bands can have training programs that they see as needed in their own communities.

“Our Nations know what their needs are more than we do sitting here in Campbell River. They develop their own training programs and deliver them a lot more cost-effectively than we could.”

Recently adding the Powell River region to its coverage area adds to the challenge, although there is some good news.

“With that we did get increased funding for the three Nations because Klahoose, Homalco and Sliammon joined NVIATS in April and they did come with additional funds, which we were grateful for.”

Expectations on NVIATS have increased dramatically since the days when the society merely paid for training.

“Before, we could find a course at North Island College and basically forget about it.

“Now we have to have a computer lab for people. We have to offer workshops we never offered in the past. We have to do everything we possibly can to eliminate any barrier they have to employment.”

NVIATS provides a variety of programs, including Bladerunners, which Simms says came with a “small pot of funding” from the provincial Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.

While NVIATS exists to help First Nations people, the society allows non-natives to use the computer lab for a job search and provides resume advice as well as letting people use a phone or fax machine.

NVIATS was formed by the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council and Kwakiutl District Council, umbrella groups representing native bands on the North Island.

For details about the society, visit www.nviats.com. You can phone the Campbell River office at 250-286-3455 or the Alert Bay office at 250-974-2908.