| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Finding each other in the big city: A new Aboriginal group aims to bring professionals together

Gabrielle Scrimshaw, a member of the Hatchet Lake First Nation, moved to Toronto from Northern Saskatchewan for a job opportunity two years ago. She admits that the move was a scary one. She had only been to the city twice before. She didn't know anyone. There was a lot to take in.

"I had no friends here, no family here, and naturally when you find yourself in a situation like that you try to connect yourself with people and find a sense of community," she recalls. "Being Aboriginal, I wanted to continue down the path of developing my indigenous and cultural knowledge while also developing myself from a young leadership perspective."

But her search for potential organizations that would meet her needs turned up nothing. There simply was no network for young Aboriginal professionals in Toronto to connect. Scrimshaw was astounded. Out of that astonishment grew the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada (APAC). Founded just over a year ago, the organization for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit professionals living and working within the Greater Toronto Area, was, for Scrimshaw, borne of necessity.

"The Aboriginal community in Canada is the fastest-growing demographic," Scrimshaw says. "We're growing at twice the rate of the non-Aboriginal population. In Toronto we're the fastest-growing demographic between 2001 and 2026, the census years."

It just so happened that, as a 2011 CivicAction DiverseCity fellow, Scrimshaw was ideally positioned to realize her vision for the organization.

"There are four pillars in the fellowship, and one of them is project development," Scrimshaw says. "It's all about learning through action and experience. So I gathered a team of six fellows, and that's how fuel was added to the fire."

The team met with Aboriginal professionals around the GTA, potential sponsors and grassroots Aboriginal organizations. Through a series of surveys and focus groups, they narrowed in on an idea to create what Scrimshaw describes as "a professional support platform" where Aboriginal professionals could develop themselves from both a professional and cultural capacity.

Currently, the organization boasts some 200, mostly Toronto-based, members from across professional sectors. It's a number that has increased as much as 20 percent every month since the group became open to members in January 2012. Social media and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth promotion—what Scrimshaw jokingly calls "the Moccasin Telegraph"—account for the bulk of APAC's membership.

"It's been a pretty aggressive growth," Scrimshaw says. "Between launching our membership in January, designing what our strategy would be and onboarding the new executive volunteers, we've also launched four ongoing services, had six events that we've planned and partnered with a whole bunch of organizations on some events that they've hosted, and grew our operating budget by 400 percent."

For its first 11 months, the group was run exclusively by volunteers. A full-time staff person was added to the mix in November. "Start small, think big and scale quickly," is the entrepreneurial mindset to which Scrimshaw attributes the organization's rapid growth.

Millie Knapp, executive director of the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts, joined APAC shortly upon its inception.

"It seemed very sexy to me," she says. "It seemed like what we need as Aboriginal professionals."

Knapp's work is motivated by a lack of mainstream media representation for native people. "So," she says, "I look for opportunities to bridge that gap. APAC helps me meet Aboriginal professionals to find out what they're doing so that I can make connections and create awareness about Aboriginal people and their issues."

One of these issues is the sheer youth of the Aboriginal population. Though Aboriginals account for only about four percent of the Canadian population, Scrimshaw points out that about half of the community is under the age of 24.

"So, we're putting more and more focus into the student segment because there is this population tsunami that's going to hit the workforce and post-secondary institutions across Canada," Scrimshaw says.

Education is currently the top priority of every Aboriginal group across Canada. "Regardless of their age group or where they live or their socioeconomic status, we're going to see a lot more educated Aboriginal people come out of colleges, universities and training, entering the workforce," she says.

 "We're going to be that support system that, as they enter the workforce, can be there for them from both a cultural and also professional capacity."

Scrimshaw is confident about APAC's continued growth. "This idea does not suffer from a lack of support. When you hear about it, you think 'Yeah, why wasn't there an Aboriginal professional network before?' It seems like an obvious concept. We just applied it to a new marketplace, and it's gotten a lot of traction."
Kelli Korducki is a writer and reporter based in Toronto.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts