Residents in remote Indigenous communities on northern Vancouver Island will soon get the opportunity to learn how to drive at a new driving school in Namgis First Nation, which aims to help open up more opportunities and improve safety for people in the area.
The Namgis First Nation Driving School will be licensed through the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) under the Motor Vehicle Act and its instructors certified to teach in the classroom and in the car, said Lucy Sager, who helped the First Nation set up the school and find funding to start it.
After training, students will go to a larger centre to take their test, she said.
"This will actually be the only ICBC-certified driving school north of Campbell River ... and it's great to be able to have more capacity to support people who might not be able to get into Campbell River to have driving lessons," said Sager, owner of the All Nations Driving Academy.
The project began when Sager was introduced to the business development group at the First Nation and learned of their need for driver training services to help people get to medical appointments and to boost employment opportunities and safety.
Sager originally set up her Terrace, B.C.-based academy to help communities like Namgis First Nation achieve those aims by offering driving lessons and helping set up driving schools.
She said the lack of transportation options in rural and remote communities in B.C. has had tragic effects.
"I grew up in Terrace along the Highway of Tears and for many years I had noticed Indigenous women hitch-hiking and disappearing," Sager said on CBC's All Points West last Thursday.
Potential trauma of getting in a car
Sager said when she first started offering driving lessons in remote communities, many of her students were Indigenous elders in their 60s or 70s who had never got behind the wheel.
For many, there was added trauma to getting into a car, she said.
"For a lot of people ... their first memory of being taken to residential school was essentially being kidnapped in a car," she said.
"... People didn't have parents to teach them how to drive and there might be some apprehension around putting your child in a vehicle with a stranger."
Kevin Ainsworth, chief executive officer at Namgis Economic Development Corporation, said instructors at the driving school will be from people in the local community or nearby to help students feel more comfortable as they learn how to drive.
'It's really empowering'
It's hoped the driving school will give First Nations in the area access to new job opportunities expected to open up over the next decade.
Earlier this year, the province said it is predicting a significant demographic shift in the skilled trades, for example, as about 70 per cent of employees are expected to retire, creating about 80,000 positions.
Ainsworth said many of the new trades jobs expected to open up in the region will require a driver's licence.
"It's really a cascading effect. We've seen cases where people get a vehicle and they get employed. It's really empowering and that has a really positive effect," Ainsworth told CBC News.
He said the school has already hired one instructor who will be taking their ICBC instructor certification test next month, and it's looking for two more to start accepting students in the new year.