At First Peoples Development Inc. (FPDI), which helps administer about $18 million worth of career training initiatives and projects for 34 Manitoba First Nations every year, they know only too well the impact technology is having on the workforce.
FPDI’s Winnipeg office administers training programs in First Nations communities using federal government funds provided for careers such as licensed practical nurses, health-care aids, early childhood educators, and pre-apprenticeship training for carpentry, welding and electrical trades.
But Joan Harris-Warren, FPDI’s executive director, has been aware for some time that while those traditional workplace skills are great, technology is taking over the workplace. And regardless of where they are, Indigenous kids need to have more exposure.
"Artificial intelligence may not fit in with the cultural norms of First Nations," she said. "But it’s something we need to embrace. The revolution is coming. It is going to happen."
Harris-Warren had a chance meeting with the founder of a Winnipeg robotics company called Cogmation at the Centrallia international business event a few years ago. After trying to break into the industrial robotics market, Cogmation was pivoting into the training business, and both agreed a partnership made sense.
The idea was to recruit young Indigenous mentors to deliver two-week long workshops using the popular Lego Mindstorm robotics kits. The workshops culminate with the students’ robots competing in a sumo wrestling challenge.
"It went very quickly," Harris-Warren said. "We had two meetings. We invited our federal government funders to the second one, and after, we got a call from them saying they wanted to give us money."
The response from the communities has been very enthusiastic. Over the course of the past three years, 445 young people from Nelson House to Sagkeeng have done the workshop, including 250 participants in the past eight months.
Six First Nations youth were recruited from universities and colleges in the province to run the workshops.
One of them, Jared Bone from Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, said, "Every time we go to communities, especially the more isolated ones, there are always some students who are shy and hold back and maybe don’t seem to want to take part. But when it’s over, they all come up right away and ask when we are coming back."
One student at the Nelson House workshop programmed the little robot to speak Cree words.
Another made the robot, which is typically oriented as a vehicle, into a dog and taught it to bark.
This week, Bone and the other five youth mentors who have been delivering the workshop in the communities will be helping out in a two-day workshop in Winnipeg for inner-city students who have not had the chance to take part in the program.
Stephen Traynor, regional director general for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, is a big fan of the program. He said on top of urgent issues like housing and social services, the department is always looking for partnerships like this one with Cogmation.
"There are so many good, positive aspect coming out of this," Traynor said. "In everything else we do, trying to provide basic support in housing and infrastructure, finding something like this that gives some hope in the community for youth to get them excited about things is wonderful."
He said the $450,000 per year funding for the program will continue for at least another year and maybe more.
Chris Schulz, Cogmation’s general manager and head of special projects, said the idea of learning through games is a strategy that’s known to be effective.
"What we have been doing is trying to drive adoption of coding through games," he said. "If I go up to any student and try to get them to learn how to program using Excel Macro or something from their dad’s business, they are not interested. If I say fighting robots, that gets their attention."
The Lego Mindstorm kits — at $500 each — are popular around the world, but obviously not cheap. The participants in the First Nations Robotics Youth workshops don’t get to keep the kits. But a computer simulation program stays behind, allowing those interested to stay engaged after the workshop ends.
"What we found is children are children all over the world," Schulz said. "They may be just victims of geography. Kids in Norway House are just as smart and capable as someone in downtown Toronto. What they lack is mentorship and hardware — and all the hurdles they have to overcome."
The tech sector is notorious for being very white and very male. There is less than a one per cent participation rate among Indigenous people in the tech sector.
This robotics youth workshop has plenty of support. The Information and Communications Technology Association of Manitoba (ICTAM) was instrumental in connecting all the parties, and provided laptops for the mentors/trainers to use.
Kathy Knight, executive director of ICTAM, knows how important it is for Indigenous youth to have these workshops led by other Indigenous youth.
"We want to be able to create more capacity within the Indigenous community to access career opportunities in tech," she said. "And, really, the best way to do that is to start developing Indigenous youth and having Indigenous students as the role models. It’s perfect.
"There is a saying — you cannot be what you cannot see."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.