As an avid volunteer throughout her career at Ernst & Young, Moira Burke continued in that spirit once she retired. One of the programs she became involved in is the CPA Martin Mentorship Program for Indigenous High School Students, which is jointly sponsored by the Martin Family Initiative and CPA Canada.
Many of the programs that fall under the general umbrella of the Martin Family Initiative have to do with education for Indigenous youth. “At the high school level, for example,” says Burke, “graduation rates among Indigenous youth are much lower than the national average. And this, in turn, affects university enrollment rates and long-term opportunities for success.”
A true partnership
The idea behind the CPA Martin program is to pair dedicated mentors from individual accounting firms with Indigenous youth over the course of their entire high school career. “The thought was, what if we paired mentors with high school students who have an opportunity for academic success? Could that make a difference to educational outcomes? Could it give Indigenous youth more exposure to the business environment and possibly careers in accounting?” says Burke.
Launched in 2008, the program is currently available in 29 schools across Canada and is still expanding. “It started with an idea and one volunteer and one school and one firm and it’s grown from there,” says Burke. As volunteer regional coordinator for Ontario, her job is that of a matchmaker. “I try to get out to each school at least once a year to meet everyone involved,” she says. “But really, it’s the individual teams that decide what makes sense for the students, often in conjunction with them.”
By focusing on high school, the program reaches Indigenous students at a key point in their lives. “A lot of us go into high school not really knowing what we want the future to bring and where our talents might lie,” says Burke. “It’s a period of exploration, but it’s also a difficult period. And for some Indigenous youth who are travelling from their communities to attend high school, there are additional challenges in being away from home."
To help explain the benefits of the program, Burke cites the example of a technically-minded student who had visited a manufacturing facility as part of the program. What he hadn’t realized, explains Burke, “was that the facility had a whole back office component that involved computers and guys with video cameras. This showed him that he shouldn’t think too narrowly about what his future job should be.”
Mentoring beyond the workplace
As Burke points out, mentoring is not new to accounting firms; they have regular mentoring for their staff. But this program takes the concept beyond the doors of the firm. “It is unique in that it engages younger staff in a community outreach activity over the course of several years,” she says. “It gives them an opportunity to make a real difference to a person’s life.”
Burke is able to judge the success of the program just by going to the schools. “For many kids, the idea that someone more experienced than they are wants to commit time to them, just to help them succeed, serves as an enormous confidence boost.”
Given her work with the mentoring program and her previous volunteering, Burke has a very precise sense of what good business means to her. “It’s not simply about short-term profits and efficiency. It’s about being part of a broader community and recognizing that we have a responsibility to contribute to the health of that entire community.” Part of that, she says, is ensuring people have an opportunity to develop their skills, learn new things and seek out opportunities that correspond to their qualifications. “The more we can create an environment where people can do that, the healthier and more successful we all will be.”