Black workers empower themselves to get the jobs they always wanted


ONE BRAVE SOUL SPOKE UP AND WE ALL GOT IT. That’s how Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard remembers the moment that resulted in the creation of the East Preston Empowerment Academy (EPEA).

The academy offers adult learning programs, university and high school tutoring programs, a high school equivalency/GED program, as well as an apprenticeship program to help tradespeople acquire Red Seals* in their trade.

Significant economic impact

The academy is based in East Preston, N.S., one of the largest Black communities in Atlantic Canada. However, it is open to everyone.

A recent study by Deloitte management consultants found the EPEA’s cumulative economic contribution from 2016 to 2020 includes more than $783,000 in labour income.

“That’s significant,” Thomas Bernard said. “So, people who are making economic policies, policies around adult education in this province, those numbers should mean something to them.”

Keeping it down home

At least as significant, is that the EPEA success stems from an approach that listens to, and works with local people, at a level that is comfortable for them.

It all started with a chance remark at a 2014 regular evening meeting of the Men’s Brotherhood in East Preston, N.S. when one man admitted: “Well, I don’t feel I have enough education, so I hold myself back.”

Everyone else said the same. They also said they were ready to participate in creating a way to get the education they wanted. The EPEA is how they kept that promise to themselves.

Howard Benjamin signed up for the pathways program at EPEA in 2015. He attended classes two nights a week. He was 45 and an experienced industrial electrician. He wanted to get his Red Seal but reading and comprehension challenges with the exam held him back.

“It was really nice to see that there were 15 or 20 men in their 40s and 50s and such out there on a Friday evening … sitting down at a table, looking at a blackboard, going over trigonometry, on a Friday night!” he said. “That tells me, after working all week, that lets me know there’s a lot of want to get these certifications.”

“It’s one of the few times that I got to be in a room, outside of a funeral or a wedding, with a bunch of my peers, talking about business. Literally, talking about business, and the industry, and our companies … throwing ideas at each other. For me, it was huge.”

Finding the right words

He said a lot of the people who attend the meetings are very proficient in the industries in which they work, but they struggle to learn what they need to pass the Red Seal exam.

He says, “I think that the way certain people in certain communities communicate and speak is different than people that might [even] be in the same town. If you were to go to a community and the test was written in a way, say, that community normally speaks, you’d probably find that those folks would understand the verbiage.

“We know that there’s a lot of people of colour who’ve been traditionally doing the concrete work in this province. But there’s been very little-to-none that are actually Red Seal designated. Meaning they can never bid for that job, meaning they will always be subjugated to some other company, giving them second rate … subcontractor money.”

Benjamin is now a certified electrician with a Red Seal construction ticket. He also now owns and operates his own business, HoweeBee Electric.

Benjamin was able to bring on an apprentice who is also a graduate of the EPEA.

* The Red Seal Endorsement (RSE) is a recognized standard across Canada for exclusive use by completed apprentices and skilled tradespersons who have passed the Red Seal exam. Employers look to the RSE as an indication of skills and competency.

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