East Preston Empowerment Academy is changing the careers of Black tradespeople

·7 min read

Howard Benjamin was born in Jamaica and has lived in Canada since 1977. Now 51, he was a second-year apprentice working as an industrial electrician for the Department of National Defense when a co-worker first told him about the East Preston Empowerment Academy (EPEA).

Though he wanted to gain his Red Seal, he said reading and comprehension challenges with the exam held him back.

"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," he said. “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.”

In the EPEA’s second year, in 2015, Benjamin signed up for the pathways program to earn his Red Seal and attended classes on Monday and Friday nights. 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 get certified.

“We know that there’s a lot of people of colour who’ve been traditionally doing the concrete work in this province," Benjamin said. "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.”

“Right now Nova Scotia’s booming in construction, and that community isn’t getting to take advantage of it like other communities are.”

“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.”

Benjamin was one of many EPEA graduates who were interviewed as part of a study into the work of the EPEA. The study, conducted by Deloitte Canada, found not only did EPEA graduates contribute more than a million dollars to the province’s gross domestic product (GDP) over a four-year period, but that more than 70% of EPEA graduates reported an increase in income after graduating the program.

“For a small organization like this, without secure funding, without permanent staff … to generate that kind of money is significant,” said Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who is the president of the 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.

Though the program is based out of the Prestons, the largest Black community in Atlantic Canada, its registration is open to everyone.

Thomas Bernard said the idea for the academy started with Reverend Dr. LeQuita Porter, the former pastor of the East Preston United Baptist Church, who was interested in lifelong learning and ongoing education.

Speaking with The Examiner, Thomas Bernard said she and Porter were invited by the Men’s Brotherhood to present at their 2014 annual sessions. She said that the level of engagement that came out that the presentations was so extraordinary, the Brotherhood invited them back to a meeting the following month. It was at the next month’s meeting where she said the idea for the Academy first started to take shape.

“And one man, one brave soul, said, ‘Well, I don’t feel I have enough education, so I hold myself back.’ And then the next thing I know other men are saying that,” Thomas Bernard said.

She said the youngest man amongst the group would have been in his 50s, with the average age of the group about 60 to 65.

“We have many people in our communities who have been tradespeople, their fathers before them — it’s mostly men but we’re trying to break that gender barrier as well — and many of them own their own businesses,” she said. “But because they’re not Red Seal certified, they’re not able to bid on the big contracts … they don’t get the higher salary.”

“And I remember saying, ‘So if we could do something here in the church, if we could bring you a program, would you participate?’ … And then I remember thinking, ‘OK, how are we going to do this?’”

To get the ball rolling, Thomas Bernard contacted Calvin Gough, who was the educator with the African Canadian Services division in the Department of Education.

She said "the stars were truly aligned" because Gough was already doing surveys in all of the African Nova Scotian communities and learning about needs around adult education.

Thomas Bernard and Dr. Porter offered to do the surveys in East Preston and about 25 members of the Men’s Brotherhood participated.

“And at least … more than half of the men in that group talked about the need for further education.”

From there, the church became an official site for one of the Black Educators Association’s (BEA) adult learning programs. They then added a GED/Grade 12 equivalency program.

Then, in what Thomas Bernard describes as “a chance meeting,” Dr. Porter’s husband, Bill Porter, who was one of the program’s instructors, met Don Adams from the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency.

She said that the study by Deloitte came about in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in the United States.

She said a fellow senator from Nova Scotia, Colin Deacon, who is white, was one of “many allies” who reached out to ask how he could help.

“We have the success we have because we have been able to attract grant funding," Thomas Bernard said. "But operating only on grant funding doesn’t give much security for the people that are working for you. We need core funding. By core funding I mean an annual grant to run this organization … Not just annual funding, but funding over a three-to-five-year period.”

She said the costs to run the program go up each year.

Thomas Bernard said she told Deacon that EPEA was “Canada’s best-kept secret” but that there was no data to highlight and profile their work.

Deacon is part of a subcommittee of the Black North Initiative. He convened a meeting with other members looking at economic development. In the meeting, he learned that another member of the subcommittee had a connection with Deloitte.

Thomas Bernard said Deacon came back to her “And basically said ‘What you need is a study. And if we could get Deloitte to do this pro-bono, we think that could make a difference. And so that’s what we did.”

According to the report from Deloitte, the EPEA's cumulative economic contribution from 2016 to 2020 includes more than $783,000 in labour income.

"That’s significant," Thomas Bernard said. "And that’s money into the economy of Nova Scotia. These are major contributions. So, people who are making economic policies, policies around adult education in this

Now a certified electrician with a Red Seal construction ticket, which he said is more significant than an industrial ticket, Benjamin owns and operates his own business, HoweeBee Electric.

Through his company, Benjamin was able to bring on an apprentice who is also a graduate of the EPEA. Vincent Kennedy, who was also born in Jamaica, moved from Alberta to Nova Scotia, where he lives with a wife and children.

Benjamin said Kennedy was originally a power engineer but that there aren’t many opportunities in North America for people in that field.

“And so, he wanted to make a change, from my understanding," Benjamin said.

Benjamin said that Don Adams from the apprenticeship agency put Kennedy in touch with him, confident that Benjamin was able to help him make a transition.

“What I’m able to do is take him on … When I’m speaking to him, I can speak to him in a way that’s more comfortable than I can speak to other folks, because of our shared culture,” he said.

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner

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