02/19/2013 06:51 EST | Updated 04/21/2013 05:12 EDT

First Nations education forum looks to future, ways to get young people working

REGINA - Tonya Bird bubbles with enthusiasm as she talks about "endless" opportunities for aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan.

"You can be anything you want," Bird said Tuesday. "I'm so excited for my future."

The 22-year-old from the Ahtahkakoop reserve is among students, industry and aboriginal leaders who have gathered in Regina to talk about the future of First Nations post-secondary education and look for ways to help young people prepare for jobs.

"I kind of know what I want, but what do I have to complete to be what I want?" said Bird, who is in the Adult 12 secondary program at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, which would be similar to completing high school.

"What kind of grades do I need, what kind of credits do I need to become what I want?"

The three-day forum entitled Post-Secondary Education and Labour Market Attachment may answer those questions.

Saskatchewan's economy started booming in 2007, based largely on natural resource revenue, and has been strong despite the global economic downturn.

The government has said at least 60,000 more workers will be needed by 2020 to keep the economy growing.

But the aboriginal unemployment rate is a concern.

A youth panel will look at challenges facing post-secondary students, while another panel will identify industry needs. Education leaders will share their vision for First Nations post-secondary training on yet another panel.

"It's a meeting ground for anybody who is interested in getting a job, for policy makers, for leadership and for institutes and industry," said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief Simon Bird.

"We want to make sure that we come out of this with a practical hands on tool for those people that can't make it to this forum. And we also hope to have everybody's questions and needs answered as to how are we going to make sure that First Nations people do not miss this economic boom in Saskatchewan."

According to Statistics Canada, between 2008 and 2010, the unemployment rate in Saskatchewan for non-aboriginal people aged 25 to 54 ranged from 2.8 to 3.9 per cent. For aboriginal people, the unemployment rate more than tripled — it was 11.3 in 2008, 10.9 in 2009 and 12.8 in 2010.

Simon Bird said practical solutions could help.

For example, Bird said, a joint task force of the federation and the province recommended First Nations schools should be able to offer driver's education training like provincial schools.

"In today's market, it's very essential. It's as common as being able to speak English or to be able to have some kind of computer skills," he said.

"It translates into being able to be job ready."

Michael Starr, chief of the Star Blanket Cree Nation, said the next few days are critical.

Starr said everyone needs to look for ways to help young people capitalize on opportunities in Saskatchewan, especially in the mining and energy sectors.

"As we move forward, we just need a little bit kicking it up a notch. That's what our forum is to do the next few days," said Starr.

Tonya Bird said she started taking advantage of every program brought to her reserve and is looking for more.

"I'm trying hard," Bird said.

"I'm not only doing it for myself, but for my children's children, to give them a brighter future, to teach them how there's so much opportunities out there," she added.