Hope and Change for Northern Ontario Youth: Social Entrepreneurship Evolution

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A search for the term social enterprise turns up numerous definitions. As Katie Elliot, project co-ordinator for Social Entrepreneurship Evolution (SEE), put it, “People have been creating social enterprises for years but a lot of people just don’t know what it’s called.”

For the sake of clarity SEE project organizers have simplified the term. “A social enterprise uses business strategies and innovative principles to address today’s most pressing social, economic and environmental issues and can include profit, non-profit and co-operative models.”

SEE kicked off last year with a three year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation though coordinators are hoping to develop an ongoing funding solution to maintain the initiative indefinitely. The aim of the initiative is to “foster a culture of social innovation and entrepreneurship and “support youth social entrepreneurs in establishing meaningful livelihoods that promote resilient communities”.

According to Katie Elliot, project coordinator, SEE is a collaborative comprised of 25 organizations. “NORDIK Research Institute is the lead organization and shares a co-chair role with the North Clay Belt Community Futures Development Corporation in Kapuskasing.”

The initiative encompasses a very large demographic of youth working with individuals that range between 13 years old and 35 years old. Shannon Moan, an action researcher with the initiative, explains the rationale for the age disparity.

“During our early conversations we spoke about how we needed to start conversations that would lead to creating a culture of social innovation. We value those conversations with young people because it allows them to develop the consciousness and awareness to make decisions from a younger age about what kind of communities that they want to have, to be able to understand what is happening in their communities and start thinking at a high school level about how they want to make change.”

Coordinators are connecting with the younger contingent, 13 – 18 years, through education and outreach. The older half of the group is developing ideas, connecting to resources and working to bring their social enterprise to fruition.

The initiative is in its second year now. Over the course of the first year project coordinators travelled to eight communities in the North to focus efforts at making terminology accessible and asset mapping. Some youth came with a social enterprise goal while others unfolded to the idea of social entrepreneurship. The process was an empowering experience for many of the young people participating.

“A lot of what we see is that young people in their communities can feel that something isn’t right,” shared Moan. “There is a process in developing the awareness to be able to name what those things are and then develop the skills to make change.  A big part of this process is about inclusivity and bringing people in that really have extraordinary lived experiences and position them so that they can make an informed change in the community.”

Elliot explained that while the educational component included the obvious discussions around terminology that an important part of the process was challenging the youth to think in new ways.

“The exciting thing for us with this project is to be able to say there are opportunities here. They may not look traditional –like getting a job at the hospital, but you can create your own opportunities here. And at the same time make change in your communities.”

SEE is as much about supporting young people to explore social entrepreneurship as it is about creating a sense of hope and efficacy among young people. It is not surprising that community conversations have identified that youth in Northern Ontario are struggling with poverty, addiction and homelessness – to name a few.

Moan leaned forward in her office chair and commented with urgency in her voice. “We need to engage with our youth in different ways because in many Northern communities we are losing them – to youth-out migration, addictions and suicide.”

Neskantaga is a small fly-in community and home to about 400 people. In 2013 Neskantaga First Nation declared a state of emergency after 7 youth took their lives in the period of one year. In the same year 27 youth attempted to commit suicide. Since the declaration, 3 more young people have committed suicide.

Addressing the media in April 2014 Chief Moonias stated that “the suicide crisis is a direct result of the fourth world living conditions in his community” impaired by illness from contaminated drinking water since 1995, lack of housing, mold, food insecurity and lack of inadequate health services.”

Neskantaga is just one of many reserves that are dealing with a suicide crisis among their young people. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 – 19 accounting for 11% of deaths among youth aged 10 -14 and 23 % of deaths among youth aged 15- 19. First Nations youth die by suicide about 5 to 6 times more often than non-Aboriginal youth and suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.

A tangible outcome of the initiative will be to develop a virtual infrastructure that provides youth access to a diversity of resources without having to travel the extensive geography of Northern Ontario. The virtual hub will also connect youth to peer and mentor support. Across the region coordinators have been working to develop ‘constellations’ that concentrates information in education, communications and financing.

SEE’s collaborative process has led to another regionally shared funding application. These unified approaches to development are not only innovative but important to sustaining various initiatives in Northern Ontario. Most Northerners would agree that being in competition with Southern Ontario is challenge enough. Regional efforts to grab some of those dollars together means the obvious- we’re not fighting other Northerners for the same funding source.

“There is greater access to resources in Southern Ontario- most of the funding is there. I think that’s the socioeconomic political environment that’s been cultivated in the North – everybody is trying to hang on to the resources that they have because we get so few. The reality is that if the North can come together and apply for a larger pot of funding there is a greater chance that we can actually bring some of that money here for our youth.”

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SEE is preparing to launch their website at the end of November. For more information contact:

Katie Elliot, Project Coordinator: katie.elliot@algomau.ca , 705.949.2301 #1037

Shannon Moan, Action Researcher: shannon.moan@algomau.ca , 705.949.2301 #4812

Melanie Watson, Communication and Event Coordinator , 705.360.5800 #226

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