Every summer, thousands of high school students leave the classroom and take their first steps into the workforce. If they are lucky, their jobs can foster growth and leadership skills, while providing hands-on experience and allowing them to earn an income. Over the past 20 years, the Outland Youth Employment Program (OYEP) has provided income and learning opportunities to hundreds of Indigenous young people.
Much like other OYEP camps across the country, in 2018, more than 20 youth from 12 communities travelled to a former ranger camp at Esker Lakes Provincial Park near Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Over six weeks, they participated in natural resources fieldwork and land-based learning while living alongside trained OYEP staff. Upon completion of the program, they earned senior level high school co-op credits and shared valuable experiences that will help set a foundation for their future.
Outland, founded in 1985, operates remote workforce housing, including camps for tree planters and wildfire fighters. In 2000, noting the lack of an Indigenous workforce in their northern camps, the company developed OYEP to provide green job opportunities for this underrepresented group in the forestry sector. Since then, the initiative has grown into a national and award-winning training, education, and employment program through partnerships with public, private, and Indigenous organizations. OYEP has an inclusive approach to Indigenous education and environmental stewardship, while supporting future economic prosperity. “Building their personal networks and giving youth a larger sense of accomplishment and pride promotes the confidence youth need to step out and take control of their own lives,” says Dave Bradley, OYEP’s founder.
Building blocks for the future
Beyond the camps, OYEP collaborates with post-secondary institutions across the country along with local First Nations. Part of the program includes Science Week, when the students take field trips to visit local campuses, hear guest speakers, and gain hands-on experience in STEM. Denise Baxter, Vice-Provost of Lakehead University, describes the initiative as very important, saying, “today’s youth are better equipped to appreciate how an understanding of STEM and natural resource management impacts their day-to-day lives and the prosperity of communities across the north.” An important aspect of the program is learning about the history, policies, and effects of residential schools through activities like the Kairos Blanket Exercise with Elders from partner First Nations.
The collective effort and unique expertise of the OYEP partners have led to meaningful outcomes for both program graduates and stakeholders. JP Gladu, former President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, commented on the participants’ personal and professional achievements: “OYEP is about leadership and inspiring others. Making sure you’re leaving a positive impact on the world. The confidence they begin to build throughout their time in the program causes their voices to raise. The participants start to recognize there is a beautiful life ahead of them.” To date, OYEP has created 1,251 summer jobs in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia. Participants, who represent over 100 First Nations, have achieved 743 high school credits and worked over 350,000 hours planting more than two million trees.
Each year, usually during the hottest days of the summer, I embark on a Northern Tour. I will visit fly-in First Nations communities and spend time hearing from Elders, community leaders, and youth. These visits are without a doubt some of the most important parts of my mandate and provide some of the most eye-opening and rewarding work.
An afternoon visit to the OYEP Esker Lakes location in August 2018 became one of my most memorable events in the last five years. It was the end of the summer, the youth had achieved their high school credits, they had learned how to plant trees, and they had made bonds and friendships that, as any camper knows, can last a lifetime.
They were full of stories, confidence, and questions. The stories and questions were not necessarily easy and brought into stark contrast the inequalities that exist in our province. Laurenn, a tall and courageous young woman, looked me in the eye and asked, “why do I have a better chance of being a missing or murdered Indigenous woman than I do being a high school graduate? My people are not greedy for money, we are greedy for water.”
Through programs like OYEP, these young people are able to see a future that balances environmental stewardship with inclusive economic prosperity. This initiative encourages a post-secondary education and furthers social cohesion. I am convinced of the importance of the camp and its power to create a more resilient future for these young people.