Learning on the job: Kawawachikamach finds a home-grown solution to tackle urgent housing repairs

The Quebec community of Kawawachikamach has a problem familiar to many remote communities: many of its homes are in disrepair and relying on fly-in contractors. This year, it tried to fight back using a new skills development program: First Feather.

Vern Poschner started First Feather program to build job experience and confidence in remote communities

Participants in the First Feather program in Kawawachikamach pose with facilitator Vern Poschner, in brown. The group has been learning from Poschner since late July, building tables, decks, and replacing drywall. (Submitted by Vern Poschner)

The Quebec Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach has a problem familiar to many remote communities — of the 165 homes on the reserve, more than 60 are in need of urgent repairs and many more need basic care and attention that often means bringing in outside contractors. 

This year, the community tried something different in the form of the First Feather Skills Development Program, an 8-week basic maintenance course which brings an instructor into the community to train local people to do some of that work. 

"It's too expensive for our community to keep having these people from outside come up," said James Pien, director of public works for Kawawachikamach. "(We) have to provide lodging and transportation and the salaries are higher because they have to come and work in an isolated area." 

According to statistics gathered by the Assembly of First Nations in 2013, 37.3 per cent of First Nation households across Canada require major repairs, 33.5 per cent require minor repairs, and 29.2 per cent require regular maintenance. 

Kawawachikamach decided to reach out to Vern Poschner, who has 40 years of plumbing experience as a contractor building homes, band offices and recreation centres in remote communities, mostly in his native province of Ontario. First Feather is his response to the frustrations he felt about the fly-in contractor mentality he witnessed in many remote communities, where locals were often "feel good" hires, but were never shown how to take care of buildings. 

The program participants sit around a picnic table built by the group. 'This table we made has become the focal point of the Department of Public Works' yard,' said Poschner. 'Now everyone wants one.' (Submitted by Vern Poschner)

"You would see [local] people standing around with brooms and leaning on them," said Poschner, who now works as an instructor at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Man. "As long as they were on the job site, the contractors were fulfilling their obligations to the band in providing them with some employment."

For Poschner, it was a monumental waste of possibility — and an opportunity to give Indigenous youth and others some much needed job experience and confidence. 

'I can say the program is very successful'

In 2016, Poschner took a leave from the college and hit the road to tour his idea for First Feather to 180 Indigenous communities from Cape Breton to Vancouver Island. The leaders and housing directors Poschner met with all told him the idea was great and badly needed, but said it would be hard to make it fit within funding rules of many of the federal programs geared for First Nations training and education. 

"Some of the barriers are prerequisites. It's very difficult and time consuming for students to upgrade to a grade 12 level if that's required," said Poschner, adding it often is and that level of education is not needed for basic construction.
Participants practice their skills. 'I can say the program is very successful,' said James Pien, the community's director of public works. 'It is providing skills to several individuals and they feel confident that they can enter into the workforce in construction.' (Submitted by Vern Poschner)

Even the programs which don't require higher levels of education are often difficult to navigate and apply for, according to James Pien, the director of housing in Kawawachikamach. To get First Feather in his community, for example, they hired an outside consulting firm, Atmacinta, just to navigate the applications and structures.

In the end, they needed to access three different funding programs, and are still waiting for some of the money to make it into their account. 

"It is very difficult for us to get our youth into some of these programs," said Pien. "A lot of these types of programs that could be provided to the community locally would be very helpful." 

Poschner has been in Kawawachikamach since late July, training a team of nine locals to use tools safely and complete basic maintenance jobs, such as replacing drywall, building decks and picnic tables, and installing much needed wheelchair ramps for elders. 

He says they are now able to design their own stairs, among many other skills. According to both Poschner and Pien, the amount of pride the trainees feel and positive feedback they are getting is really important. 

"I can say the program is very successful," said Pien. "It is providing skills to several individuals and they feel confident that they can enter into the workforce in construction."