North

New aboriginal entrepreneurship program starts at Mistissini high school

Cree teenagers in Mistissini, Que., now have the chance to create business plans, learn from local mentors and even access start-up funding under a new entrepreneurship program created by former prime minister Paul Martin’s Martin Family Initiative.

Martin Family Initiative's Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program launched at Voyageur Memorial High School

Former prime minister Paul Martin (centre) with Quebec's Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs Geoffrey Kelley (left) and Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees Matthew Coon Come (right) in Mistissini last week. (Joshua Loon/CBC)

Cree teenagers in Mistissini, Que., now have the chance to create business plans, learn from local mentors and even access start-up funding under an entrepreneurship program created by former prime minister Paul Martin's Martin Family Initiative.

The new two-credit program was launched Nov. 25 at Voyageur Memorial High School, where absenteeism hovers around 23 per cent and the school is looking for ways to keep students engaged.

"The first time I entered this program, I was really happy to learn new things," said Riley Coon, a high school student enrolled in the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program, the first of its kind in Quebec.

"I always wanted to start up my own business here in Mistissini."

Mentorship from leaders

The program includes mentorship by local business leaders, some of whom attended the launch — including owners of a Mistissini hair salon, tire shop, and Tim Hortons.

"I think what we all want to see is that at some time 20 years from now that this room is not big enough to hold the business community from Mistissini," Martin said at the launch.

"If that happens, it will be because of this course but it will only happen if the business community gets behind it."

The program is already available in 44 high schools in seven provinces and the Northwest Territories, starting with Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nation High School in Thunder Bay in 2007.

"Finally it's happening in our community and I am happy to see that," said Anthony McLeod, owner of the Tim Hortons in Mistissini.

Innovate or else

The Martin Family Initiative is funded through corporate partnerships and individual donors.

"We all know the economy is changing at such a rate that unless you're innovative, unless you're thinking into the future, you're not going to make it," Martin said.

"That's what this course is all about."

Quebec's Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs, Geoffrey Kelley, pledged $80,000 to support the program at the launch ceremony on Friday.

The Cree School Board's director general, Abraham Jolly, said the entrepreneurship program could eventually be extended to other Cree communities.

with files from Terrence Duff and Joshua Loon