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Manon Barbeau has a simple dream: giving young people from First Nations communities an opportunity to express themselves using video and music, promoting a sense of healing, empowerment, and community engagement. A filmmaker, Barbeau has always been passionate about creating movies that give voice to those who need it most. A powerful means of communication, films are an outlet like no other. And, so, since 2004, thanks to Barbeau’s social enterprise, Wapikoni Mobile, small teams of impassioned cohorts – made up of filmmakers and community organizers – have been traveling to remote indigenous communities pursuing that one goal.

Each crew, with a mobile film studio and sense of purpose in tow, spend a month teaching young people aged 15 to 30 skills in audiovisual technology and music production. At the end of the four weeks, the young participants create their own film or musical compilation, on topics of concern to them, and showcase it to their community. But that’s not all. Barbeau also helps distribute the finished products to festivals and conferences worldwide. In fact, since the initiative began, an impressive 29 of the films have won prizes.

Establishing a rapport

Of course, in order to make the most of their month-long trip, the crew needs to approach each First Nations community effectively. “Sometimes things happened in a community that we’re not aware of,” explains field coordinator, Sandrine Berger. “So you have to know who to speak with.” That requires contacting elders and the band council as well as people in the field to ensure the time is ripe for their arrival.

Though primarily focused in Quebec, Wapikoni Mobile has already expanded to Alberta and Manitoba as well as to indigenous groups in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and French Polynesia. Barbeau’s reach is impressive and growing. Since its inception, 1,200 youth have taken part and, in this year alone, they’ve produced 64 films and 94 songs.

Time for change

As Barbeau’s story attests, when it comes to Canada’s Aboriginal people, social enterprises can be a strong force of change. And for many, it’s a long time coming. Just ask former Prime Minister, the Rt. Honourable Paul Martin, who recently announced the launch of a $50 million fund to promote Aboriginal business and entrepreneurship. At a number of recent events, including one hosted by SVP Torontoand another co-sponsored by SiG and MaRS, Martin reminisced about his commitment to right the wrongs of the Aboriginal people – a passion that began at 18 and has grown stronger over the years.

It’s common knowledge today that, due to restrictive laws and questionable government policies, Canada’s Aboriginal people have been unequal participants in and benefactors of the economic growth of this country. They also face a slew of social, demographic, and health challenges. Martin’s CAPE Fund is meant to help fight that inequality by infusing much-needed equity into Aboriginal enterprises. What’s more, Martin hopes it will eventually lead to the creation an Aboriginal middle class, which he considers, “the only way they can rise above.”

The unprecedented initiative is receiving a lot of positive response. “I think what Martin is doing is key, it’s cutting edge,” says Clint Davis of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. While there may some loan and grant programs available to Aboriginal people, access to equity is seldom proposed and CAPE may actually prove beneficial all-around. The financing will help get businesses off and running, generate a return for fund partners and support entrepreneurship in the community. “Frankly I think it’s only a matter of time before other equity partners see value and start to participate.” Martin would probably agree. “CAPE is needed to break the mold; it has to be broken first and then others will follow,” said Martin during the SVP Toronto event.

Strength through education

Social entrepreneurs are also cautiously optimistic about the fund, with many vying for a piece of the CAPE pie. Take Jo-Anne Gross. Her social enterprise, Remediation Plus, trains teachers – from Senior Kindergarten to grade three – to teach children with a language learning disability how to read, spell and write. Thanks to some partnerships, her efforts are heavily focus on First Nations communities. Considering the high dropout rate among young Aboriginal people, the initiative has proven to be life-changing for many, earning top marks from teachers and parents alike. “Kids are not completing high school at a rate comparable to the regular population and that’s critical,” says Davis. Gross echoes his concern but adds, “If you start early, you can achieve tremendous results.”

Among the usual challenges faced by all entrepreneurs (“We are not a country that is very supportive of entrepreneurs,” she says), one of the specific difficulties Gross has to contend with is lack of funding. First Nations schools receive approximately half of the funding of a typical school board due to the support they get from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), she explains. It’s simply not enough. “We don’t have the money to do what needs to be done,” says Gross.

Though the CAPE Fund is technically reserved for Aboriginal-run enterprises, in response to a question posed by Gross at the SiG@MaRS event, Martin made it clear that their synergistic missions may call for an exception. “He actually asked me for my business card and I thought, ‘how nice is that,’ that’s a twist,” says Gross with a grin. “I’m so grateful I asked a question.”

Toward impact

Joseph MacLean may have a few questions of his own. Project leader at Vancouver Aboriginal Social Enterprise (VASE), MacLean is overseeing a growing number of entrepreneurial ventures. VASE began with a capacity-building project, Shine a Light on Literacy. Today, the fundraising tool is used primarily by schools and charities whereby flashlights are sold and funds go toward employment, training opportunities, and aboriginal-specific literary tools. “Only about 20% of Aboriginal kids graduate from high school,” says MacLean, underlining the project’s importance.

The learning curve has been steep, says MacLean but the project – VASE’s mainstay – is still moving along. They also started a digital trade school in partnership with Vancouver Native Health and Vancouver Native Housing. Under the banner of its new home, the Inspiration Café, the Digital Technology & Education Society will teach web-based technologies to people in the downtown eastside. And then there’s theVancouver Healing Lodge, a culturally appropriate healing centre for First Nations people. Expected to open in 2011, the Lodge will cater to those coming from the north and remote regions in need of medical treatment.

On the main floor of the same building there will be an Aboriginal art gallery, an extension of a current project entitled, Looking Forward Looking Back: online videos that look at the downtown eastside through the eyes of Aboriginal artists who live there. “It’s a precursor to our online presence for marketing urban Aboriginal artists,” he explains. And let’s not forget the training school for hospitality services as well as a sales agency for various other products. VASE certainly has their work cut out for them. And, with the right partners, funding and support, they’re confident they’ll fulfill their primary goal of becoming a publishing force and a partner in technology and content development.

In search of human capital

As for challenges, they come down to finances and human resources. “Many of the Aboriginal people with higher education are snapped up,” says MacLean. Yet, despite obstacles, he’s determined to carry on, confident that a social enterprise is the only answer. “Government funding in every area is shrinking, the competition for dollars is increasing and the current model – a handout model – doesn’t really serve the interests of individual development and community self-reliance,” he explains. “So you have to keep going, you can’t quit.”

Elisa Birnbaum
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Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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