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Young First Nations people are gaining skills and experiences through a pioneering Water First Internship program.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” — Aristotle, 350 B.C.

The philosopher Aristotle spoke about the benefits of experiential learning as far back as 350 BCE. But instead of hands-on “doing,” much of the learning that takes place in Canadian schools is fairly passive: a teacher speaks at the front of a classroom while the students sit, heads-down at their desks, and take notes.

The Water First Internship program isn’t like that. Supported by RBC Future Launch, this 15-month internship opportunity is designed to give primarily young, First Nations adults education and training in water science management.

Because the program focuses on hands-on learning, Kendra Driscoll, a water quality specialist with Water First, says it’s been highly successful. Nearly every graduate of the pilot program now works in water management or in the environmental field.

Work-Integrated Learning with Water First

Part of the program’s success is due to the practical experience built in to the training program. Between week-long workshops in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario, Water First interns work at their local water plants full-time. They get hands-on training, experience and mentoring from seasoned operators.

During the week-long workshops, interns don’t just learn Western science. Water First works directly with local First Nations communities to offer a holistic program that includes traditional knowledge shared by Elders and water walkers.

Interns are also paid through the whole 15-month program. After all, says Driscoll, the students have families and expenses, “and it’s real work they’re doing.”

Helping Youth and Local Communities

Work-integrated learning opportunities, like the Water First Internship, are vital to Canada’s economy, as they help students gain the skills and knowledge required to enter the work force and succeed.

Gaps in income, education and work between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations have resulted in billions in missed economic and societal gains, according to RBC’s Bridging the Gap report.

Amy Waboose, 25, of Whitefish River First Nation on Manitoulin Island, says the program’s structure changed her life.

“I was an average student,” she says. “I could read a book six times and the information in it still might not go in,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about chemistry or pH levels. But when you get hands-on experience it’s completely different.”

For Waboose, perhaps the biggest benefit of work-integrated training was that when it came to finding a job in her home community — the networking was already done. By that point, she’d been working at her local water treatment plant for more than a year.

Testing chlorine levels and working in the lab as a water quality analyst has structure. It has stability. There’s a routine. “I like that,” says Waboose.

And in-between working at the plant where she gets to help keep the water safe and healthy for her community, she gets to raise her young son in the town she grew up in. She gets to go fishing in the waters surrounding the island each summer. It’s a good life, she says. And she hasn’t just found just a job, Waboose says, “I’ve found my career.”

Empowering Canadian youth for the jobs of tomorrow, RBC Future Launch is focusing on three critical gaps: Helping youth get work experience, helping youth grow their network, and helping youth gain new skills. Canadian youth-serving organizations are encouraged to apply for donations and sponsorships today.

Find out more about how RBC supports Youth.