The parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs helped kick off an Aboriginal Entrepreneurs Conference in Ottawa this morning.

Mark Strahl told the delegates the government is committed to First Nations employment, and is actively trying to help on-reserve youth access skills and training.

The two-day affair is being attended by several chiefs, Aboriginal business experts and industry leaders.

Boris Rassin is the president of ATCO Sustainable Communities.

Rassin says working with Aboriginal communities requires an assessment of their needs followed by a schedule the two sides can agree on.

He says community members should always speak up if they feel the company that is working on their land needs to know something:

“People shouldn’t be shy.  They see us in the community and we have workshops and we have community fairs — and if people don’t see exactly how they fit into a proposed project, they don’t necessarily approach, but they should.  Because unless the question is asked, and the openness to learning in the future is displayed, then opportunities will not be pursued.”

Meantime, Michael Keefer says smaller businesses like his own need to respect the culture of their clientele.

He operates a nursery near Cranbrook, and says the First Nations workers he has hired have helped bridge the gap between customers on-reserve and those who travel in off-reserve:

“We have elders teaching the students the Cree names, the Cree uses for the plants, while people like myself teach the Latin names and the English names.  So you have the two knowledge systems coming together.”

Conference leaders say business partnerships can help accelerate change for many Aboriginal communities.