Employment Programs At Sto:lo: Uplifting Spirits and Skills

"When someone walks through our doors, we see potential," explains Irene Adams, Supervisor of Social Development at the Sto:lo Nation.

Serving First Nations across the Fraser Valley - from Langley to Chilliwack to Hope - the Sto:lo Nation provides social services support to nine bands. Thanks to the Nation's social development and employment programs, the percentage of its members dependent on social assistance payments has decreased in recent years to 12 per cent, compared to an on-reserve average of 35 per cent in British Columbia.

According to Adams, believing in an individual's strength is key to improving self-esteem and assisting them along the sometimes long road to independence. This belief, coupled with traditional First Nations' cultural values helps members discover talents and strengths they may have underestimated.

"With our pre-employment program, the first stage is self discovery," says Adams. "A lot of times people have to find out what's holding them back and make the choice to work through it."

Two of Sto:lo's most successful social programs are the Pre-Employment Life Skills Program and the Gift Gallery Program, which are delivered by the Social Development, Employment Services and Education departments at Sto:lo Nation. These innovative, culturally sensitive programs help Sto:lo members to realize their talents while developing important business and life skills.

Sto:lo women
The Sto:lo Nation's pre-employment program strengthens life skills while building self-esteem.

Based on the medicine wheel, the pre-employment program encourages participants to balance their mind, body, spirit and emotions. The four week program teaches life skills such as communication, budgeting, writing, conflict management and decision-making. During the program Sto:lo members put their new skills to work and craft an employment action plan that details their employment goals and next steps.

Participants are also taught important cultural practices such as knowledge of traditional herbs, healing and crafts. Both of these styles of learning are important, but involve two different skill sets, notes Adams.

The pre-employment program is designed to help prepare its participants for employment, many of whom have experienced past challenges.

Susan McKay, a Sto:lo member, attended a pre-employment session held in May 2008. Susan says she was inspired, thanks to the cultural elements of the program. The program helped her improve her writing skills, and now Susan is writing a book about her past experiences and difficulties in life.

Despite her past challenges, Susan is taking positive steps in her personal recovery and reconciliation by changing the way she thinks. She encourages other First Nations people who are suffering to “retrain their brains” to think positively. In her opinion, this will help them to achieve their life goals and become contributing members of their community.

Sto:lo crafts
The Syixcha'awt Gift Gallery on Vedder Road enables artists to sell their wares and learn business skills.

Another Sto:lo program helping First Nations to develop confidence and business sense is the Gift Gallery Program. Located on Vedder Road in Chilliwack, the gallery sells Sto:lo artists' work. Each artist receives one-on-one advice about how to price their art, to compile a portfolio and to create marketing materials, including business cards and tags.

The gallery sells many high quality handmade First Nations crafts, including beaded jewellery, clothing, art cards, medicine wheels, dream catchers and turned bowls. Recently, companies like Zellers and HBC have approached the gallery, asking for artists to develop products for the 2010 Olympics.

Sto:lo painting
Artists who exhibit at the Sto:lo Nation's gift gallery learn common marketing techniques such as personalized price tags.

Amber Silver, an artist from the Sumas First Nation who sells her beadwork at the gallery, believes that it is important for First Nations artists to develop their talents and exhibit their work to local and international visitors alike.

"We need to keep our art alive," states Silver.  "If no one does it, then it's just going to be forgotten."

Gilda Kelly agrees that sharing and showcasing culture through art is also an important aspect of participating in the Gift Gallery Program. Kelly, a Sumas artist, knits Cowichan-style sweaters.  She appreciates having a place to sell her artwork and profit from doing what she loves.