Rising Stock

A young finance star builds an association for Aboriginal professionals

Illustration by Patrick Doyon

Economists and labour watchers have issued plenty of doomsday predictions in recent years about Canada’s shrinking talent pool, in the service industry and the skilled trades, but also in fields including communications technology, health care, and engineering. With youth unemployment in Canada stuck at 14 percent, the problem has not reached a critical point yet, but warning bells are being sounded about the inevitable wave of boomer retirement. While turning to immigration has been highly controversial (think Temporary Foreign Worker Program) and raising the birth rate seems far fetched (imagine, a national child care plan!), one possible solution stands out as inherently logical: acknowledging the sole demographic that is already growing.

The Aboriginal population has increased nearly four times faster than any other in Canada. Three in ten are now under the age of fourteen, which means 400,000 will reach working age in the next decade. “It’s a tsunami,” says Gabrielle Scrimshaw, co-founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada. Of course, the potential match between market needs and this labour pool is deeply fraught, a reality she understand well.

The twenty-five-year-old Dene from Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, was the first member of her family to earn a post-secondary degree, and the first Native person to represent Canada as a youth delegate at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. While studying commerce at the University of Saskatchewan (with the help of $53,000 in scholarship money), she visited Peru as part of an international trade development team, then backpacked through Asia. Yet when she finally moved to Toronto in 2010 to participate in RBC Royal Bank’s elite Graduate Leadership Program, rotating through departments in six-month stints, “I was scared that I was in over my head,” she says.

Many young people starting their careers feel this way, but the transition is harder those of Aboriginal heritage. Fewer than 10 percent hold a university degree, compared with 22 percent in the general population, and opportunities are scarce outside of the biggest cities. Scrimshaw is quick to point out, however, that Aboriginal people are not rural by definition—of the 1.4 million in Canada, half live in urban areas—and barriers may be more social than geographical. Consider that she lacked the benefit of a network of mentors, connections on whom she could rely for advice about how to ask for a raise or what to wear on casual Fridays. She also felt unsure that her colleagues of other ethnicities would understand her need to balance corporate values with Aboriginal ones.

While Canada’s federation of Business and Professional Women has been around since 1930 and the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada was founded two decades ago, until Scrimshaw co-created APAC in 2011, Indigenous workers faced such challenges in almost complete isolation. Members access services from free tickets for fancy dinners with the Toronto Region Board of Trade to discussion groups with an elder about how to translate traditional ideas of leadership to a corporate setting. A monthly newsletter profiles such trailblazers as Ambassador Todd Kuiack, whose career with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development has seen him posted all over the Americas.

Last June, the association set up a booth at Toronto’s Na-Me-Res powwow, handing out cards and chatting up prospective members. Fifty-something moms in feathered robes stopped often to check out the brochures before nudging their kids to add their email addresses to APAC’s list. The only readily available statistics on Aboriginal labour show that unemployment is still on the rise. However, in just three years the association has grown to 400 members, which may suggest that another trend is afoot, and at least some workplaces seem motivated to accommodate the demographic shift.

Scrimshaw was the first person without an advanced degree to be accepted into the Graduate Leadership Program. She was hired last summer into RBC’s community marketing and communications division, and she now helps attract Aboriginal business and supports employees like her as a member of the bank’s Royal Eagles.

Buoyed by these successes, she has holed herself up in her thirty-eighth-floor lakefront condo to study for the GMAT, hoping to be accepted at an American university where she can work toward an international career. She believes there are Indigenous professionals all over the world who, like her, want to integrate their traditions with modern careers, people with one foot in “two canoes,” as she puts it. “I don’t think those conversations are mutually exclusive.”

This appeared in the March 2014 issue.

Denise Balkissoon
Denise Balkissoon is a freelance journalist in Toronto. She co-founded The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity.
Patrick Doyon
Patrick Doyon received an Oscar nod in 2012 for Dimanche/Sunday, an animated short.