As part of its $1.5 million commitment to create more opportunities for aboriginal people in the technology sector, IBM Canada Wednesday announced a program to give aboriginal youth more exposure to science and technology.

Called Igniting

Interest in Technology and Engineering (Ignite), the camp is modeled after IBM’s Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering (Excite) program that encourages girls to pursue careers in technology. The three-day camp includes role models, hands-on experience with robotics and Web development and it is culturally-sensitized in terms of having the appropriate ceremonies.

Starting next month, Ignite camps will be held in Edmonton and Vancouver with additional plans for camps other Canadian cities — including Winnipeg, Ottawa and Halifax and the province of Quebec — later this year and next year. Chosen by members of the aboriginal community, youth attending these camps range in age from Grade 8 to 12.

“Those cities represent a fairly good co-relation to where aboriginal communities and kids are,” said IBM Canada executive in charge of the aboriginal program John Longbottom. “You look for the leadership within each of the communities because you’ve got to have leadership on the IBM side.”

The launch of the camps is part of a broader strategy that focuses on the aboriginal community, which IBM Canada announced last September. IBM last November also signed a partnership with the Manitoba government to develop initiatives to create more opportunities for aboriginal people in the Canadian economy.

Education is a key part of IBM’s strategy and is fundamental to any potential success for aboriginal communities.

“It’s another point of influence that creates a much more dedicated and determined force of young people, which is the prime resource for the future,” said Longbottom.

This is something Ed Bourque, who is the president of an aboriginal-owned technology company, believes will address one of the biggest problems facing aboriginal businesses in Canada today.

“Youth programming is our biggest problem in business,” said Bourque, who heads up Ottawa-based Transpolar Technology Corp., an IBM partner for the past decade. “One of the hardest things we have to do is find qualified aboriginal people to work in the IT sector in this country.

“The opportunities exist for us to do business, but to maintain the spirit, the reason we exist, it’s difficult to find qualified aboriginal people to take on the opportunities.”

Likewise, Longbottom estimates the amount of aboriginal students that are entering programs like engineering and computer science is less than the overall population from a statistical standpoint.

“This particular program is to encourage the students to be focused on math and science in the high school period so that they have the tools they need to go into engineering, computer science and business programs that we would find useful as an industry,” he said.

The lack of qualified aboriginal IT labour makes it difficult for companies like Transpolar to meet with federal government regulations that demand 33 per cent aboriginal content when a company takes on a business opportunity.

“Sometimes we have to pass on those opportunities because we can’t meet the criteria of the federal government,” said Bourque. “Within the non-government industry, as an aboriginal company, we have a moral obligation to create opportunity for aboriginal people in opportunities that we take on. There’s no use to being an aboriginal-owned business if you can’t hire your own.”

While it will take a few years before any long-term benefits of the program can be realized, Bourque is 100 per cent in favour of what IBM is doing.

“We know it’s going to be a long process,” he said. “We understand that the development of the skill-set within the communities is going to take time. We’re willing to work and wait.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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