Ashoka Canada’s Changemakers Initiative has announced two early winners in its competition Inspiring Approaches to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Learning. The early prizes, each worth $500, go to Québec’s Wapikoni Mobile, a travelling video and music workshop, and Ontario’s Aboriginal Student Links, a mentoring program for students of all ages.

Ashoka Canada, the Canadian wing of Ashoka International, is a global non-profit organization that encourages social entrepreneurship – the practice of applying business principles to social issues with the goal of bringing about social change. With the Changemakers Initiative, Ashoka Canada hopes to help find new and innovative solutions to problems that have been around for a long time. In late October of 2011, they announced the Inspiring Approaches competition, which was designed to reward the most inventive methods to advance education among Aboriginal communities.

Ashoka Canada Executive Director Elisha Muskat says that both winners of the early entry awards are programs that offer broad perspectives on education and learning, and encourage education that continues beyond the classroom setting. The criteria under which entries are judged are: “Innovation,” “Social Impact,” and “Sustainability.” Put simply, the competition seeks new ideas that will have a positive impact on education for Aboriginal communities, and will be able to continue running after their initial funding runs out.

The competition offered two deadlines: one for early entry awards, and a final deadline of January 27, 2012 for major prizes. Entries are judged by a seven-member committee, along with one to two external advisors, and are eligible to win one of 30 prizes, some worth as much as $5,000.

Serving a variety of communities, Wapikoni Mobile offers travelling workshops in video and music production to Aboriginal youths all across Quebec. Working out of RV trailers, Wapikoni has traveled the province since 2004, training nearly 2,000 young people in 19 First Nations communities. In total, they have produced close to 450 short films, and have won more than 40 awards.

But last summer, the federal government cancelled Wapikoni Mobile’s annual $490,000 grant, cutting the organization’s budget in half. As a result, the Wapikoni Mobile workshops could only afford to travel to seven communities in the past year, instead of the usual 15.

Elisha Muskat says the funding cuts to Wapikoni Mobile were not a deciding factor in selecting the organization for the Inspiring Approaches award. Instead, she says that the seven-member Ashoka Canada committee, along with one or two external advisors, felt that Wapikoni Mobile was “a project that had real potential to be sustainable, and had an amazing impact on the communities it reached. We loved the idea of this mobile film unit showing up, and the intergenerational dialogue it creates.”

In particular, Muskat continues, “The fact that it travels on wheels and reaches remote communities is really fabulous. The social impact is huge. It’s not just in one place – it has the potential to be in different places, and not just urban centres, but also places that can be very hard to reach.”

Ontario’s Aboriginal Student Links (ASL), the second winner, provides long-term mentorships to students at a variety of levels, designed to help them overcome the obstacles set up by cultural barriers to post-secondary education. An initiative undertaken by Nipissing University’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, ASL works in partnership with two local school-boards in the North Bay area to set up ongoing mentorships between university and high school students, as well as between high school and junior-level students.

“The mentored becomes the mentor at every stage of the program,” Muskat explains. “It’s a real application of gaining knowledge and transferring knowledge – and being able to apply that knowledge right away. By creating those links throughout different stages in learning, it really creates a personal connection. Having a person who’s going through what you’re deciding you’re about to do is really important. If you’re a high school student and you now have a relationship with somebody in university, it becomes a lot more accessible, and much more realistic.”

Aside from its potential to boost student graduation and university-enrolment rates, what drew the award committee to ASL was its inclusion of Aboriginal mentors, says Muskat, adding that this provides students with positive role models.

Both programs, Muskat points out, begin with the presumption that important learning takes place outside the classroom – even if, in the case of ASL, it is learning that deals with how individuals see themselves in the framework of formal classroom education. As well, both programs promote intergenerational  dialogues, whether between young people and their greater community, through Wapikoni’s video and music production, or between students supporting and encouraging one another at various stages of formal education on ASL’s mentorship ladder.

The final deadline for entries to the Inspiring Approaches competition is January 27, and Muskat emphasizes that the program is still looking for ideas and would be very happy to receive more entries from Cree communities across the country. For those people who know of programs they would like to nominate but are not sure of how to submit or draft an entry, the Changemakers Initiative offers online community advisors – including some from Cree communities – to help coach the development of entries to the contest.