Justin Arcand sees money to be made in Alexander.
The business shirt and tie do not look at all out of place on the 19-year-old, who eagerly spins his hopes to bring arcades and a taxi service to the reserve to give local kids places to work and play.
“Make a little hang-out centre,” he says, with confidence, “and you can make a lot of money.”
Justin is one of 10 budding business moguls that last week formed the Alexander Youth Council, a new volunteer group designed to bring jobs and business skills to the community.
The group has been in the works since about April, says Marcel Arcand, the group’s co-ordinator. It replaces the old Youth Business Foundation, which folded in 2006 due to a cash crunch.
“Back then, when it was the youth business foundation, it was just myself,” Marcel says. The new group has a solid volunteer base, he says, and plenty of young members in touch with the needs of today’s youth. The council will hopefully become a place to train students for future careers and to teach them how their community works.
The group has the full support of band council, says councillor Henry Arcand. “One of our priorities was to get something moving with our youth,” he says. “We have to build their capacity as future leaders.” He hoped the group’s efforts would help create jobs and make youth feel pride in their community.
Tough place for business
Like other small communities, Alexander has long struggled to bring businesses onto the reserve. The band launched a $12-million data centre in 2007, for example, that was meant to create 20 jobs. The centre is now sitting empty with no clients. (Centre officials could not be reached for comment.) A new industrial park created last fall is also unoccupied, Henry notes, due mostly to the sluggish economy.
One of the main problems of bringing business to a First Nation is the lack of services on reserve, says Marcel. You can talk all you want with investors, he says, “But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, they have a problem with the cost of infrastructure.”
That meant there was little to do on reserve when youth council member Courtney Newborn was growing up. “So guess what? We walked the streets.” Many youth turned to drugs and alcohol as a result, she says.
Alexander’s youth are well educated, Henry says, but many are stuck in a rut, unable to find jobs. “That’s your future talent pool, and if you don’t get them involved sooner or later, there’s going to be trouble later on.”
Jobs take work
Courtney, who now works at the Footprints Healing Centre, says she hopes the council will help teach youth about teamwork and responsibility. “The cry from them is, ‘Help,’ and I want to help them.”
The council is working with St. Albert’s Northern Alberta Business Incubator to bring training courses to the reserve, Marcel says, and lining up venture capital with the Community Futures Tawatinaw group in Westlock. They’ve also arranged a six-week heavy equipment course with Portage College this summer that should see 16 youths building roads on the band’s lands near Fox Creek.
It was also looking for local businesses that were interested in setting up internships for youth, Marcel says. “We’re trying to get a solid foundation for our youth to build on.”
Justin says he hopes his taxi service would help other residents get to jobs and activities off the reserve. “There’s a lot of things for youth to do out there,” he says. “There’s more for youth to do than just hang around Alexander.”
To reach the youth council, call Marcel at 780-939-4757.