FREDERICTON – For Jenilee Paul of St. Mary’s First Nation, her role as a course instructor at PLATO can help other Indigenous people see a path for growth in the IT sector.
“It’s kind of like being a role model. You’re setting that path so the people in the courses afterward can come into it and know that they can move up the ladder and take on more courses, more skill sets or leadership roles,” she said.
Paul says there’s not a lot of tech job opportunities accessible to Indigenous communities in New Brunswick. It’s generally not a sector where they’re involved either. But PLATO is changing that because, in addition to five-month courses on software testing and automation, it also offers part-time or full-time employment.
“Being in the field with others, for Indigenous people who haven’t done anything in IT or in that field, you have that sense that you’re not alone in it,” she said.
Paul was part of PLATO’s first cohort of software testing trainees in Fredericton in 2015. She found out about the program through the Joint Economic Development Initiative, an Indigenous organization that works to foster Indigenous economic development in New Brunswick.
Since joining the training program, she’s made her way up the ladder and now trains incoming cohorts.
Keith Joe, also an alumnus of the first cohort who is now a team lead at PLATO’s Miramichi office, echoes Paul’s sentiments. Joe, who is from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, said it allows him to work in a growing sector but not far from home.
“It gives opportunity to people in the Miramichi area,” he said, adding there’s now a team of nine people at the Miramichi office.
He says cultural practices like smudging and respecting people’s time to speak without being interrupted in a conversation circle are also observed at the office.
A Company Led and Staffed By Indigenous People
PLATO, which stands for Professional Aboriginal Testing Organization Inc., is the sister company of PQA Testing, a software testing company founded in 1997 by Keith McIntosh.
“PQA provides a lot of the sales and overhead management for the company to find opportunities, and once we’re delivering projects, PLATO and PQA team members work together on projects to deliver the service. But they’re two different companies with slightly different ownership structures,” he said. “PLATO is intended to be staffed, led and owned by indigenous [people].”
PLATO came out of PQA’s Aboriginal Software Testing Initiative in 2015, after McIntosh’s participation in the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference made him focus on reconciliation efforts in addition to his desire to create jobs in his home province New Brunswick, especially as young people move away and the rest of the population ages.
“We can’t solely rely on immigration to grow our workforce because some people will come and leave…but we have 30,000 to 40,000 indigenous people in New Brunswick that aren’t really engaged in the economy. And we need them, in IT, specifically,” he said.
PLATO offers its training courses in partnership with local partners like JEDI and ACOA in New Brunswick. These courses are funded through various sources, including PQA itself, which provides the technical leadership.
PLATO may also team up with community organizations, internship or client partners, or First Nations, Inuit or Métis communities. The training program occasionally gets funding from municipal, provincial and federal governments as well.
The company aims to bring the courses to the people rather than having trainees commute far from home.
The program includes five months of in-class training, and a three-month paid internship. Trainees that do well are then offered full-time opportunities. The aim is to lower the barriers for indigenous people to enter the IT labour force, a sector where they often don’t have connections or familiarity with, or in which they’re competing with people who have a lot more experience.
“Anybody who’s trying to get their first job, there’s that challenge of you need the experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience. So we just tried to break down as many of the barriers as we could to find a way to get people into the workforce,” McIntosh said.
The focus on reconciliation is attracting more workers to PLATO and PQA.
“It’s not just about money. It’s about something that makes the world better, that you’re doing something good,” McIntosh said. “All the PQA staff feels that they are contributing to Truth and Reconciliation in Canada; to making lives better for people; and to giving opportunities for people.”
McIntosh himself is not indigenous, he says, but he grew up around indigenous people so he had a bit of a “head start” when it comes to understanding the challenges they may face. But building relationships with Indigenous communities takes time, as well as a lot of learning and listening.
“Every indigenous community across Canada is different. They have commonalities, but they have different challenges, leadership structures, size…so you can’t go into them with a cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “I grew up with some familiarity but I can tell you that I learn something new almost every day. You don’t know those individual challenges until you go and talk to people and listen.”
“I go to conferences across the country and I hear a lot of about nation-to-nation reconciliation. And really what we’re trying to do with PLATO is person-to-person reconciliation. It’s [about] building trust,” he said. “There are legitimate reasons to cause some to have a lack of faith and a lack of trust. So you have to earn that trust and earn that respect.”
Paul says more employers should hire indigenous people but suggests creating a process that eases people into the workplace.
“Maybe they can put on a work placement course so [people] can get used to how it’s like instead of just throwing them right in there. Because when you’re uncomfortable, you freeze up and you feel down,” she said.
In addition to Indigenous staff members, PQA’s staff come from all over the world, including China, India and Singapore, so McIntosh says the company embraces diversity more easily.
“The culture of the company is much more collaborative…people are more tolerant of differences, for the most part,” McIntosh said. “The indigenous side of things has made us better at accepting that Canada is a pretty diverse population.”
“It makes you pay more attention to people. You’re much more aware of your words. They carry weight and they carry meaning. And you try to be much more aware of how somebody else might take it,” he added.
PLATO’s training course has now been offered 15 times to over 150 students across 45 indigenous communities.
“The goal is to create a 1,000-person indigenous company in 20 offices and touch as many more as we can. There’s a lot of work to be done,” McIntosh said.
As of now, PLATO and PQA have grown to nearly 200 staff members across the country. PQA has doubled in size since its founding, McIntosh said, as business is “growing at a rate we really have never seen before in the 23 years we’ve been doing this.”
Paul herself has instructed courses in Sault Ste. Marie, Regina and Fredericton. She’s looking forward to continuing the role, wherever in the country the company might need her.
“They’d offered me to go and teach the course to have someone the students can relate to, an aboriginal person who already knew the layout and what was expected from the course. So I was there to help guide the projects and activities along based on my knowledge and experience with it,” she said.
“I really enjoy it and I hope to continue with it. I think next year they have plans to send me somewhere. So I’m hoping to go wherever [they send me].”