Aboriginal Business Leader Shares Ideas For Making School And Work More Inclusive


For many people, the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are not well understood, especially when it comes to post-secondary education issues.

Of mixed Cree, Métis and European ancestry, Kelly J. Lendsay has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology as well as an MBA, both from the University of Saskatchewan.

He started his career in the 1980s in aquatic and recreation management and  international swift-water rescue, and was the youngest person to serve as the national chairman of the National Lifeguard Service. While completing his MBA at the U of S, he focused his research on strategies to increase Aboriginal business education and economic development.

Kelly became the first director of the new Aboriginal Business Education program at the College of Commerce in 1995. There he helped initiate and nurture several Aboriginal business education programs, including Canada’s first MBA with a specialization in Indigenous management. As a professor and program director, he helped mentor students and redefine the future role Canadian universities may play in developing an Indigenous economy.

In 1998, he became the first president of the Aboriginal Human Resource Council and has helped to grow the organization into an international social enterprise that supply the growth of the Aboriginal workforce and provides leadership to employers in Indigenous workplace inclusion and economic development.

I recently spoke with Kelly before the launch of the council’s virtual recruitment fair, which has attracted over 500 Aboriginal job seekers this year, to better understand some of the challenges and unique circumstances that Indigenous students across Canada may face while they pursue a degree or diploma.

What makes the experience of Aboriginal students entering school different from others?

Kelly: The majority come from rural and remote areas, so we’re talking reserves, Métis communities, Inuit communities. But you know, it’s changing, because now 50% of Aboriginal people live in the city, their children are being born in the cities, so you’re beginning to see a transition – a demographic change. But I think it’s fair to say that there is a large contingent that come from rural communities, with a blend of both rural and urban.

Kelly J. Lendsay, President and CEO, Aboriginal Human Resource Council

The profile of students, though, is different. There are more women. Additionally, Aboriginal students are older – about four to five years older on average. That’s due to a whole host of reasons, from not completing Grade 12 in that linear cycle and having dropped out, then going back and getting their Grade 12, upgrading. Now they’re 20 or 21 and . . . they’ve decided that they want to go back to school. They have a career goal and an education goal.

Like I said, they’re four to five years older and many of them have children. They are raising a family. Of course, there are a lot of non-Aboriginal people that have children as well, but childcare issues tend to be a high priority for many Aboriginal students.

And I think that the third thing is that they need role models. If you grow up and you’ve not had many people in your family go on to post-secondary, well then there’s not that many people to talk to about the experience. So the role models, whether they be Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, can really help. What to expect in terms of class load, workload, reading, assignments, teamwork, the pressures of school, balancing work life – all these things. This is where I think mentorship can be very very helpful.

Why do Aboriginal students need a special Aboriginal student centre or gathering place on campus?

Kelly: I would not use the word “special.” I would say, why do you need strategies for student centres? And you know, you could also parallel the fact that we are welcoming international students. There might be an international student centre. It provides the support systems and support that are needed by international students. In much of the same way, this is what they’re doing for the centres for Aboriginal people.

“If you look at the experience of Aboriginal people in Canada’s school system, it’s a story of residential schools; it’s a story of disconnect; it’s story of some First Nations, Métis and Inuit who do not even have the opportunity to go to school at all.”

The word “special” suggests there really is a need. If you look at the experience of Aboriginal people in Canada’s school system, it’s a story of residential schools; it’s a story of disconnect; it’s story of some First Nations, Métis and Inuit who do not even have the opportunity to go to school at all. The whole history of education generally in many Aboriginal families isn’t really that promising.

So you have a number of Aboriginal students going off to school, and in many cases they are the very first in their family to graduate from Grade 12 and to go on to post-secondary. These student centres provide a second family away from home. They provide elders to find a connection and to talk. You know, if you’re a student who needs support and it’s going to help you feel included and succeed in school, then an Aboriginal student centre is definitely a very, very good investment.

An Aboriginal student centre should enhance the profile of a university or college as another mechanism of inclusion. Aboriginal student centres are welcoming to Indigenous people from around the globe as well. There are many Indigenous students in Chile, Brazil, the Americas, Australia; finding that they have a place to go and feel included.

What are some of the challenges in school and work that Aboriginal people face?  Would there be some similarities between school and work?

Kelly: The similarities are things like a lack of experience, a lack of knowledge and a lack of awareness. And those things are easy to address, to give people the knowledge and awareness and the education. But the real big challenge is for school, and to be successful in your transition into school, is that you need to be really solid educational foundation. The challenge for many kids on reserve and in remote areas is do they have a good educational foundation from Grade 9 to 12, first off, so they can be successful in their post-secondary pursuits? And I think that the other is that people need to set long-term goals. You need perseverance, you need hope, and you need a plan, and that comes by having a long-term goal.

The second challenge is I think that we’re very short-term focused, and we need to take a longer-term view of both education and career development.

And I think the third one is culture shock. One day I remember a mother from northern Saskatchewan saying to me, “Sending my child down to Saskatoon would be like someone sending their kid down to New York City. I will not see my child for eight months. We can’t afford to have them come back at Christmas time. So you might as well be in New York.” And it really hit me that there is sort of a distance factor in culture shock that people can experience.

What can non-Aboriginal students do to reach out to their Aboriginal classmates and colleagues that will help make our schools and workplaces more inclusive?

Kelly: I think  that one of the things inside colleges and universities today and even in our high schools—and this is no different than in corporations—educational institutions need to explain and educate to their own staff and faculty, and remember why they have these Indigenous outreach programs.

“We’ve got to create an inclusive work environment. We want to see targets. We want to see students stay in school and we want to see them be successful.”

We’ve got to create an inclusive work environment. We want to see targets. We want to see students stay in school and we want to see them be successful. Faculty and staff from inside educational institutions need to get to know the communities – the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities – especially in the markets where their schools are located.

Secondly, they need to get to know the students. Aboriginal students are educators themselves. When asked, they have ideas, they have views, they have differences of opinion; there is diversity in terms of thought, leadership, and our people and our leaders. And it makes for a really reach dynamic, especially in an educational institution.

The other thing is to actually bring Aboriginal or Indigenous worldviews into the classroom, into our way of thinking. We should be contributing to education—ideas, concepts and models—and when you do that you’re really practising and living inclusion.

The final point is we have Aboriginal educational institutions in this country, and these are run by First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups. You know what? There are some non-Native students going to those schools, and they need to be inclusive of those students as well. So the principle of inclusion goes across both and applies equally to Aboriginal educational institutions as well as the non-Aboriginal institutions that we’re primarily talking about today.

What is Inclusion Works?

Kelly: It’s our fifth annual Inclusion Works in Saskatoon, from April 29th to May 1st.  There are two really neat components to the event. The first is that we do a recruitment fair, where we select up to 100 college or university grads from across Canada [to participate]. Anyone can apply, and we encourage all students to apply, because we try to help create a life-changing experience by bringing these grads together to pursue their dream job, learn more about employers, meet employers, and actually go through and have live interviews at the recruitment fair.

People often say, “Oh, I wonder if I really have an opportunity? Why would they select me?” You just need to go to our website and hear the videos. The voices of the grads who have been selected in the past—I hope it inspires people to apply and attend.

This is [the Aboriginal Human Resource Council’s] 15th anniversary and we’re pleased that [Eric Newell (past CEO of Syncrude) and Ray Ahenakew, founding co-chairs of the Aboriginal HR Council from 1998-2003] will be participating and providing some leadership. There will be about four or five hundred people that will come. All these employers – our partners; people from inside their companies and also from other companies; people from communities, employment centres and friendship centres; educational institutions – will be participating, so it’s a really rich event with great focus on learning that we’re pretty proud of.

Now that you’ve read about Kelly’s ideas, what are some of yours? Tell us in the comments section below how you think schools and workplaces can become more inclusive of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal Careers Week featuring PwC and BHP Billiton

Photo credit: Thompson Rivers University

About the author

Danielle Lorenz is a long-time contributor to the Career Incubator. Danielle is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. When procrastinating from schoolwork, you will find Danielle lurking on several social media platforms and trying to befriend the snowshoe hares on the U of A campus.