New funding for Indigenous-led initiative to help equip youth with skills training

Alejandro Mayoral Baños, Pauline Shirt, Ruth Koleszar-Green, Judy Sgro, Rhonda Lenton, Mackenzie Toulouse

The Indigenous Friends Association, an initiative designed by York University students to connect and support Indigenous youth, will receive funding of more than $350,000 from the Government of Canada under the Canada Service Corps program.

The announcement was made at Skennen’kó:wa Gamig (the House of Great Peace) at York University’s Keele Campus on Aug. 1.

The investment will equip 120 First Nations, Inuit, Métis and non-Indigenous youth with the skills and training required to reduce barriers in technology-related employment and education, all while engaging a process of reconciliation through collaborative learning and civic engagement.

Alejandro Mayoral Baños (PhD candidate and executive director of Indigenous Friends Association), Pauline Shirt (Knowldege Keeper), Ruth Koleszar-Green (York University professor and special advisor to the president of York on Indigenous initiatives), Judy Sgro (MP for Humber River – Black Creek), Rhonda Lenton (York University president and vice-chancellor) and Mackenzie Toulouse (York University student representative)

“This is a moment of celebration,” said Alejandro Mayoral Baños, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies’ Communications and Cultures Program, and executive director of the Indigenous Friends Association, a non-profit set up by the IP Osgoode Innovation Clinic.

The initiative, Mayoral Baños said, was conceptualized several years ago through conversations between faculties, knowledge keepers, students and staff.

“We started talking about the possibilities of connecting Indigeneity in digital spaces,” he said, “and we realized that we need to cross the discourse of providing access; we need to give ownership and control of digital spaces to Indigenous communities.”

York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton said the initiative is an example of how York is honouring its Indigenous Framework.

“York University is committed to placing Indigenous knowledge, cultures and peoples at the core of our teaching, research and creative activities,” said Lenton. “This project is a wonderful example of student initiative, collaboration and teamwork that supports the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth through co-creating innovative technological projects.”

The project will be led and implemented by the Indigenous community of York in partnership with YWCA Canada and the Digital Justice Lab. Local partnerships have been developed in Ontario with the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, Elephant Thoughts and Mikinaak, and in Saskatchewan with the YWCA Regina, the North Central Hacker Dojo and the West Flat Citizens Group.

Keith Gonzalez (Indigenous Friends Assocation), Alina Rizvi (Indigenous Friends Association), Mackenzie Toulouse (York University student representative), Lluvia Machuca Ruelas (Indigenous Friends Association), Alejandro Mayoral Baños (PhD candidate and executive director of Indigenous Friends Association), Ruth Koleszar-Green (York University professor and special advisor to the president of York on Indigenous initiatives), Emery Jones (Indigenous Friends Association)

Judy Sgro, member of parliament for Humber River – Black Creek, announced the Government of Canada’s contribution to this project during Aug. 1 event.

“I’m pleased to express my support of the wonderful energy exhibited by the students of York University in the launch of this new project,” said Sgro. “The Indigenous Friends Association is showcasing an entirely new approach for a new century, new digital workplace and new generations to come. I am grateful for this new opportunity to expand Indigenous learning and encourage this cultural education endeavour.”

Through various partnerships, individuals under 30 years of age will be provided with skills training in three phases:

  • Phase I: Community outreach and participant recruitment;
  • Phase II: A boot camp and four practical technical courses; and
  • Phase III: Co-creation and implementation of community action projects.

Announced by York in April 2018, the Indigenous Friends platform started as a mobile social networking tool created by students as a collaborative space to access traditional counselling, social networks, event calendars and community resources. From the onset, the app was developed with the guidance of the Indigenous community at York – elders, students, faculty and staff of the Aboriginal Students Association.

“This funding will help us develop the technical skills required for youth to participate in community service opportunities and culturally diverse initiatives,” said Mayoral Baños. “It is truly an initiative developed by Indigenous Peoples, for an Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience. I look forward to its continued growth.”

The Indigenous Friends Association is currently developing and expanding the mobile app in other post-secondary institutions in Ontario. This new funding opportunity will help increase the initiative’s impact in other provinces through the implementation of novel approaches to educational program development for digital tech.