Offering opportunity: Young Canada Works is a great foundation for a career in heritage

Kristina Adler, Dominique Boulet & Genevieve Wong

Getting a first career-driven job after completing post-secondary studies isn’t always easy. The Young Canada Works (YCW) program, however, can make a big difference for future museum colleagues. Part of the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) collaborates with Canadian Heritage in delivering the YCW program, which offers summer jobs and graduate internships in museums and related organizations. It supports various positions for young people establishing their careers in the heritage sector. Part of the aim of the YCW program is to give young people the opportunity to further develop the skills they acquire in school, while studying or after graduation, to prepare them for a permanent job in the heritage sector.

YCW offers two streams: Young Canada Works in Heritage Organizations (YCW-HO), which provides funding for student summer jobs, and Young Canada Works in Building Careers in Heritage (YCW-BCH), which provides funding for internship positions for recent graduates. Both streams assist young Canadians in finding employment in their field and gain pertinent experience with the goal of easing the transition into the job market and eventual permanent work.

The CMA checked in with a few past participants, now successful in the sector, to share their thoughts on the program.

Alexandra Badzak, the Director and CEO of the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG), described her experience with the YCW-HO program as being a great learning experience where she was able to put academic theory into practice. Badzak completed her master’s degree in adult learning with a focus on informal learning in museums. During her studies, she participated in a summer job in the Public Programs department at the Mendel Art Gallery, now the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At the time, the gallery was interested in how adults were engaging with content, realizing that labels on art pieces were perhaps insufficient. An effort to increase engagement with adult visitors formed the basis of Badzak’s YCW position. It also led to the subject of her master’s thesis, in which Badzak considered the “in-between” spaces of galleries and, “how these spaces could be used as a safe, relaxing space to deepen the connection with the artworks.”

Badzak said her experience with YCW-HO gave her the opportunity to gain real work experience that cannot be given in an academic setting. For example, she learned how to work with colleagues and how institution functions are full of subtleties. Experience that was crucial in transitioning into the job market. Even today, Badzak finds the soft skills she acquired during her time with YCW-HO relevant in her current position where perception and persuasion are important parts of her work.

Alex Jacobs-Blum, today the Indigenous Community Relations Coordinator at Guelph Museums, shared a similar trajectory. Interested in photography as a way to research her Indigenous identity, Jacobs-Blum pursued an academic background in contemporary arts and photography. After her studies, she participated in the YCW-BCH program in an internship as the Indigenous Curatorial Assistant for Guelph Museums where she was able to put her education into practice by developing display cases for the group exhibits Indianized and Konnon:kwe.

Through her work she gained confidence as a museum professional and learned about the close relationship between museums and the process of decolonization. While gaining relevant experience, she developed connections that helped rebuild the museum’s relationship with Indigenous members of the community. After her internship, Jacobs-Blum was able to transition into her current permanent position with Guelph Museums, where she continues to build trust between the museum and Indigenous community by challenging language, introducing concepts of decolonization, and decentering the museum.

For many emerging museum professionals, the ability to have autonomy and responsibility in their work is invaluable and many of the participants we spoke to attributed their success in their current roles in part to being given independence in their projects and professional development opportunities during their YCW positions.

Carla-Jean Stokes, now a curator at the historic O’Keefe Ranch in Vernon, British Columbia, spoke about the benefits of being exposed to professional development opportunities through her YCW internship with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). For her internship, Stokes worked as a Collections Information Assistant and was exposed to both a large collection at the gallery and a vast network of museum professionals. In addition to building her skill-set, Stokes was able to attend various gallery events, acquainting herself with the museum community. Stokes also had a supportive employer that connected her with any professional contacts that she wished to add to her network. For Stokes, the ability to complete her internship with a large gallery like the AGO gave her the skills and knowledge, but also the professional reach she was looking for to secure full-time employment following the completion of her graduate studies.

One challenge the CMA hears about from prospective YCW employers in rural regions relates to filling positions. Many potential candidates pursue studies in major cities, leaving rural organizations with a smaller pool of nearby, qualified candidates. The logistics of relocating to a rural region for a job can at times present a barrier for both interns and employers. Costs of travelling and short-term accommodations have often been cited as deterrents for taking a short-term position.

Chloé Ouellet Riendeau participated in the BCH program at the Musée d’Histoire de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke History Museum) and is now working as an office agent at the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec (Quebec National Library and Archives) in Sherbrooke. When asked about her experience and whether she would have considered a position in a rural region, Riendeau states, “I probably wouldn’t have accepted a position in a rural region since I don’t have a car. Also, I wouldn’t have moved for a contract that was only six months.” [translation]

While it can present challenges, some employers have come up with interesting solutions and strategies for staffing YCW positions in their rural regions. Sara Legault is the cultural mediator at Musée Laurier in Victoriaville, where she is in charge of cultural activities and audience development. Legault participated in the YCW program in both the HO and BCH streams, and today is responsible for the YCW-HO positions at Musée Laurier. For the recruitment process for the summer positions, the museum has built direct relations with the local CEGEP and actively promotes the positions to qualified students directly through the school.

Depending on an organization’s location, relying on the availability of local candidates is not always possible. Another employer, Laura Phillips, Coordinator of Collections & Exhibitions at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, in Ouje Bougoumou, Eeyou Istchee, explains Aanischaaukamikw’s hospitable approach can often make the transition easier and less costly for potential interns:

“We may receive fewer applicants than urban centres, but the applicants are usually of excellent caliber… We encourage the intern to ask questions about the location and workday. We provide furnished accommodations for our interns, so this helps with the practicality of short-term relocation to Ouje-Bougoumou. The village has a close community environment and we work to support the needs of interns as they arise. For example, if someone does not bring their car, we make sure they get rides as needed, for example to get groceries or to get to the airport.”

It is important to note that part of the YCW funding does allow for some reimbursement of travel costs. However, YCW contribution caps are inclusive of relocation reimbursements, meaning that more YCW funding can be applied directly to the costs of running a position where an intern does not have to relocate. Organizations in urban areas are thus sometimes able to support longer-running internships than their rural counterparts.

Small and rural heritage organizations are of great importance to the Canadian cultural landscape and can offer opportunities for career growth and eventual permanent employment to many young professionals.

In addition to the creative approaches illustrated by the rural employers in this story, the CMA’s YCW team is also exploring ways to further strengthen its delivery of the program and to increase the pick-up of the program in rural areas by, for example, targeting promotion of the program where participation gaps have been identified.

For those we spoke with, it is clear that the YCW program gave them an important opportunity for their future. Today, many past YCW students or interns now supervise YCW students for their organizations, providing employment opportunities that build on a student’s education, that provide an environment of trust that fosters independence, and that help a student or recent graduate develop a strong, supporting network in our sector. And this is good for employers who benefit from the skills of qualified participants, good for students making their way, and a good investment in the future of the museum industry.