Bringing Business Education to Indigenous People

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Monday, December 20, 2021
By JP Shearer, June Lulua
Photo by iStock/grandriver
A partnership between Queen’s University and an Indigenous-owned training agency offers an underrepresented community better access to education.

Over the past year, postsecondary education institutions have renewed their efforts in the areas of equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenization. Schools have aimed to increase the representation of marginalized communities within the education system and create safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for students. This work has taken many forms, including strategies, action plans, policies, resources, and initiatives that focus on addressing and reducing barriers.

In Canada, according to the Indigenous Services Canada annual report to Parliament, there are significant gaps in university attainment for Indigenous groups compared to non-Indigenous populations. Between 2001 and 2016, there have been increases among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis populations, but those increases haven’t kept pace with advances among the non-Indigenous population.

A new initiative designed to give Indigenous peoples better access to education was recently developed by the Centre for Business Venturing (CBV) at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Ontario, and Spalyan Education Group, an Indigenous-owned training agency. The two of us are co-leading the initiative, which is supported by funding from the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training in British Columbia.

The new specialized training program was launched in September. It delivers business, technology, leadership, and management training to all six Indigenous communities of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia, including the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government, the Yunetsit’in Government, the TŝiDelDel First Nation, the ʔEsdilagh First Nation, the Tl’etinqox Government, and the Tl’esqox First Nation.

Shaped by the Community

The Smith-Spalyan partnership program addresses one major barrier to success that Indigenous learners face: the traditional top-down education model, which often concludes with an exam or similar form of testing. This is not how Indigenous students are accustomed to learning. Instead, they learn by doing, communicating, failing, and connecting.

Our program modifies the traditional educational approach so it incorporates Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and perspectives. Our goal is to enhance comprehension, retention, and knowledge transfer among Indigenous students. For instance, some learning exercises include group discussions that virtually replicate circle discussions—environments where every person is equal and every person contributes to the circle. Another key component of the class is time for students to reflect on what they learn, how they feel, how they have grown or could grow, and how they have interacted with others.

Our program modifies the traditional educational approach so it incorporates Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and perspectives.

The program consists of three courses that were developed after we consulted with community members and identified specific needs within the Indigenous groups. We shaped the content and delivery model to blend university teaching with Tŝilhqot’in values and ways of knowing. The three courses are:

Business Applications. This foundational course covers some of the more technical skills typically taught in a business and administration management course.

Proposal Writing. All six Tŝilhqot’in communities requested this topic, since most local initiatives are funded either through government transfers or grants.

Indigenous Leadership. This course addresses the colonial governance and administration systems used with Indigenous communities and seeks to bring Tŝilhqot’in ways of managing and governing back into the communities. It explores topics such as colonialization and Tŝilhqot’in resistance, the Indian Act and Tŝilhqot’in Governance, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Courses currently are taught by a combination of Smith faculty and Indigenous instructors, allies, and mentors, but Spalyan’s goal is to have 100 percent Indigenous instructors by 2023. Students from the first cohort will become instructors and mentors for future classes.

We believe that earning a certificate of completion from a recognized institution like Smith has the potential to improve learners’ prospects in the competitive job market and build their confidence in exploring additional formal education offerings. Encouraged by positive early feedback, we hope to promote participants’ interest in higher education while making them more marketable to potential employers.

Building on a Previous Program

This initiative is Smith’s second in the Tŝilhqot’in community. In September 2020, the school ran a three-month pilot program for members of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation to help get participants ready to seek employment or pursue entrepreneurship. The program was funded by a 70,000 CAD grant (about 55,700 USD) from British Columbia’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training.

The program was delivered by Smith’s CBV in partnership with Redbird Circle Inc., an educational training and consulting company with an Indigenous focus. Redbird Circle was founded by Jonathon Redbird and Christina Tachtampa during their time in Smith’s Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship program.

The Smith School is supporting a movement toward self-sufficiency and change in the socioeconomic landscape for Indigenous communities.

Delivered by both Smith faculty and Indigenous instructors, the pilot program taught project management and strategic thinking, and provided the opportunity for participants to apply their new skills in their communities. Those who finished the course received a certificate of completion in business and administration management.

Following the 2020 initiative, participants founded three new businesses in the community and 96 percent of participants said they felt more prepared for the workforce. Ninety percent also indicated they were interested in furthering their education.

An Opportunity to Learn

With our newest initiative, the Smith School is gaining a tremendous opportunity to learn how to build collaborative and immersive pedagogies in entrepreneurship and business education. We also are supporting a movement toward self-sufficiency and change in the socioeconomic landscape for Indigenous communities.

We believe the new project will be successful for five key reasons:

  • We follow an open and collaborative approach to developing content through an Indigenous lens.
  • We develop programming by taking a student-centered approach and listening to our community partners.
  • We offer support in securing funding.
  • We leverage our partner’s communication channels to market the program. Spalyan promoted the program on social media, in local bulletins, and at community meetings. The organization also engaged with the Tŝilhqot’in National Government office to market on the platforms of each of the six communities.
  • We have a project manager who is Indigenous.

The collaboration also has benefits for Spalyan, which is a new company. Through its partnership with the Smith School, Spalyan is building its capacity for delivering educational programs. It also has advanced its mission of developing education that makes Indigenous ways of learning and knowing accessible to Indigenous students, while preparing them for rewarding careers.

As more academic institutions seek to make progress on their commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenization, we hope our partnership inspires similar collaborations between universities and organizations that serve underrepresented populations.

JP Shearer
Associate Director, Centre for Business Venturing, Smith School of Business, Queen’s University
June Lulua
Founder of Spalyan Education Group
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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