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Yellowbird: How an Indigenous Pre-Employment Support Program (PESP) has grown into something more

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

In 2013 the Maskwacis chiefs of Samson Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, and Louis Bull Tribe met to talk about starting a community-based pilot project, which would seek to help individuals on income assistance become independent by equipping them with the necessary tools to enter the workforce. Samson Chief Marvin Yellowbird, Ermineskin Chief Craig Mackinaw, and Louis Bull Chief Rusty Threefingers all signed off on the initial agreement, which would see the funding for the pilot project operate on a year-to-year basis. Although the pilot project was only supposed to go for a year, it is now going into year 7, and there are plans to write it into social policy - it’s therefore safe to say the program is here to stay. The pilot project faced criticism at first as the participating nations had to address the barriers that their nation members faced. The main barriers facing the community were education, training, transportation, opportunity, training supports, community, economic opportunity, a lack of resources and a lack of community support for their nation members. To address the transportation barrier, one of the first programs Samson PESP focused on was the Class 7 Learners and Class 5 Drivers programs. This would help the students become more employable as employers are now looking for people with their drivers license. The Driving To Success program, in partnership with the Maskwacis Employment Centre, would offer students a week long program in which students could challenge the Class 7 Learners exam at the end. If students were successful, they would receive a $50 incentive for passing the learners exam, and if they held their learners for a year, they could be enrolled in Street Wise Driving School. The in-class and in-vehicle training offered with Street Wise Driving School on-reserve has been one of Samson PESP’s longest & successful partnerships. Samson PESP has also sent students to Interior Heavy Equipment School and Blue Quills Camp Life Training. In 2019 they started focusing more on education programs like upgrading and GED. This was around the same time the program was moved under the education pillar in which it flourished. Since being under education, Samson PESP has produced 15 GED grads, provided support to transport students to programs, and has partnered up with Red Deer College to bring programs on-reserve which were never offered before. One of the first programs in partnership with Red Deer College was a Health Care Aide program which produced seven Health Care Aid grads from Samson Cree Nation. When students would attend these programs, part of the support that PESP would provide included an allowance for students attending, lunches, transportation, child care, and incentives for when they complete their respective programs. Having all these supports in place with staff—who believe in moving people forward—has made Samson PESP what it is today. These programs flourish with the proper staff who believe in the same vision, and with the support from leadership. One cannot function without the other. At first it faced criticism because of the mentality people have who are on income support. It’s argued that such people would not want to better themselves without any sort of material incentive. To address that, PESP would partner up with ASETS to provide an allowance to students who attend programs. These programs could not have been successful had it not been for the partnerships, service providers, and staff who shared the common vision for the community. These types of programs need support not only from management, but leadership as well if they are to see any progress. Yellowbird's first year working with PESP in 2014 did not see any results. Results are measured by exits in which the SA clients move on from PESP to either education or employment. The standard practice when the SA clients have moved off-reserve for training or employment PESP would be able to cover their first months rent while their security deposit is supported in partnership with Samson Cree Nation. Clients have to prove they have employment lined up with a letter of employment or letter of acceptance if they are going to school. It was not until their second year of operation that PESP started producing their first success stories—which was with their Class 5 drivers program.

Samson PESP has produced the following statistics to date: -2017 ranked top 3 in Canada in relation to producing exits -180+ students have passed their Class 7 Learners & Class 5 Drivers -10 Grads from Interior Heavy Equipment School -20 Grads from Blue Quills Camp Life Training Program -15 GED Grads -7 Health Care Aid Grads To date PESP has grown into something much more than just providing safety tickets to students. It has now grown and seen grads of the like from Blue Quills Camp Life Training, the Heavy Equipment School, in addition to their GED and Health Care Aide program, all of which would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the hardworking staff, partnerships, service providers, and support from leaders like Marvin Yellowbird—who was one of the founding visionaries for the pilot project during his tenure as chief. Yellowbird remarked: “Things have been challenging with COVID-19, but we will continue working towards providing PESP programs as we have in the past. We still envision growing PESP into something more as we are well into our 7th year of operation.”

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