Indigenous business training an economic boost 

Training program funded by $450,000 Canada-B.C. Job Grant for Douglas First Nation

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Wynter Phillips has wanted to open her own food truck since high school, so when the Mount Currie band member found out about a new training program that would give her the skills to do it she jumped at the chance.

"I was unsure about how to get it started and what I needed to do... I asked for help from my counsellors, but they didn't know where to point me," she said during an on-site training day at Sabre Rentals Ltd. on Friday, April 21. "(This program) is such a great experience to learn how to run my own business."

Now she hopes her dream of serving up traditional native foods at campgrounds, hot springs, powwows and birthday parties is on the horizon.

Phillips, along with 28 other adult students, is part of a unique training program that has brought together multiple First Nations members to focus on how to get business idea off the ground and up and running.

Six weeks into the program, it's poised to launch 10 tourism-, industrial- and service-focused businesses within the communities, including tours and developments to the Sloquet Hot Springs, canoe tours, a sawmill, a business centre and a cafe. The tourism-based businesses are expected to thrive once the forestry access road to the reserve is paved; a development Douglas First Nations Chief Don Harris said is on the way.

For years, members of the Xa'xtsa, also known as Douglas, First Nations have been brewing ideas for businesses, but didn't know how to even begin turning those ideas into reality. But that's all changing, thanks to the RISE: Roots of Indigenous Strength and Entrepreneurship program. The First Nations training program is working to equip its students with the skills and confidence required to start and successfully run their own businesses — and positively impact their communities' economy.

Since the beginning of March, the adult students from the Douglas/Tibella, Mount Currie, Skatin and Semahquam bands have gathered every weekday morning in the community of Tipella for class, where they learn a wide array of business skills customized to the community's needs — ranging from conducting market research to first aid to operating heavy machinery.

"For the Douglas members, they've had their plans for years," said Harris. "They just haven't had the ability to take the first step, and this is creating that first step."

The four-month program is facilitated by the Indigenous Community for Leadership and Development (ICLD) and its team of mentors, and funded by a $450,000 Canada-BC Job Grant.

The program has, so far, been wildly successful: All 29 students were self-selected to the program and are on track to graduate, with a 98 per cent attendance record — something ICLD CEO Mandi Sellers describes as "unheard of" for First Nations training programs.

"Right across the province, that's never happened before," she said.

These achievements come despite "massive logistical issues" due to the small nation's remoteness, said d'Artagnan Newton, a consultant for Douglas Nation. Tibella is located 80 kilometres down the In-SHUCK-ch Forest Service Road alongside Lillooet Lake, about a three-hour drive from Whistler.

"The drive of everybody to make this work from the community is so overwhelming," said Newton.

In addition to skills and confidence, the program is also fostering a sense of collaboration between its participants and their bands. Skatin band member Daniel Peters said he's looking forward to seeing how his fellow students work together as the communities undergo inevitable changes moving forward.

"I've seen most of these kids grow up, so to see them take the forefront to actually be active and not reactive (is exciting)," Peters said. "That's the thing; we're always being reactive, and these guys are giving us the tools to be active and that is really what we need.

"It's given strength to all the communities.

"You actually know what (your classmates) are capable of, and that gives you the support. We can network (with) each other and help each other."

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