Tabatha Bull: Canada’s bottom line needs globally connected Indigenous youth

Let’s support and encourage the fastest growing demographic to study and work abroad

This op-ed was published in the Toronto Star August 1, 2022

Opinion piece by Tabatha Bull, President and CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business

The Seven Generations teaching tells us we need to consider how our words, work and actions will impact our seventh generation. The great, great grandchildren of our great grandchildren.

It’s a powerful approach.

One thing that is guaranteed to have benefits for generations to come is investing in Indigenous education. As the fastest growing demographic in Canada, Indigenous youth are significant contributors not only to the future success of their communities, but also that of our country.

A new way to support Indigenous youth is by helping – and encouraging – them to gain international work and study experiences.

Global study teaches problem-solving, communication, cultural sensitivity, languages, adaptability and teamwork – skills that students bring back to their classrooms and communities. Students who study or work abroad also generally earn more in their careers and are more resilient in the global economy than those who don’t.

It’s also good for Canada’s bottom line.

Many of the priorities Canadian businesses face are global in scope. Canadian companies benefit from hiring individuals who can build strong, trusted relationships across borders.

What’s more, Indigenous people are creating businesses at nine times the rate of non-Indigenous people and are twice as likely to be exporting or looking to export to other countries.

It’s only logical that Canada supports its fastest-growing demographic to go global.

I can attest to the benefits of international experiences firsthand. In grade 12, as a Youth Rotary Exchange Student I attended high school in Turku, Finland and lived with three different families.

It was an incredible learning and growth experience. Living abroad at 17, completely immersed in another culture and lifestyle taught me about perseverance and being open to new opportunities.

The experience of building friendships across different cultures, at times with significant language barriers, plays a huge role in who I am today.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have travelled, but I know there are many students who are not as fortunate.

Pre-COVID, a mere 11 percent of Canadian undergraduate students and three percent of college students participated in an international experience during their studies. Those numbers were much lower among Indigenous students.

Recognizing the need, the Federal Government launched the Global Skills Opportunity program in 2021. Created to help students gain international skills, it’s a $95 million investment in Canada’s future.

A full 50 percent of funding is targeted towards underrepresented students – Indigenous students, students with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds.

At Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, we continually see two key barriers for Indigenous youth and entrepreneurs: equitable access to programs and networks.

Not only does GSO provide additional funding for underrepresented students, but it’s also designed to make the entire process easier. For example, many trips last only a few weeks, which is more feasible for students with family or work obligations. Some experiences are offered virtually – an unexpected, but welcomed, outcome of the pandemic.

Several projects running under the GSO umbrella have integrated Indigenous approaches and are connecting with Indigenous communities in other countries. In some cases, an Indigenous Elder accompanies students on their travels.

The program is already seeing results.

In the few months since international travel safely resumed, more than 1,000 Canadian college and university students have embarked upon life-changing and career-boosting international experiences through the GSO program. Of those, nearly one fifth self-identified as Indigenous.

By 2025, more than 16,000 Canadian post-secondary students will benefit from the GSO program. The skills, empathy, cultural understanding and networks they will gain will in turn benefit us all.

We have significant work to do as we look forward to the world that we leave for our next seven generations, and we need to do this together.

This is a step in the right direction.

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