Aditya Jha: Helping First Nations Help Themselves

By Teenaz Javat

“If Canada is to maintain its social calm it must look north,” says Aditya Jha, as he sips his steeped tea in a Mississauga Tim Horton’s. “We have failed our First Nations.”

Growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas, Jha, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, hails from a middleclass family of land owners. His village of Nadhawa, which straddles the India-Nepal border, lacked electricity, running water and paved roads; not unusual in that remote corner of the world almost 50 years ago. However, it was a shock to him when he saw these very same conditions prevailing among First Nations reserves in 21st century Canada.

The shock gave way to outrage. “I was deeply hurt to see how there can be so much of poverty amidst so much of plenty in one of the richest countries in the world,” says Jha.

Jha immigrated to Canada in the mid-1990’s. A software engineer by training, Jha is a serial entrepreneur, buying and selling start-up companies with businesses ranging from computers to candies. “Canada has been good to me,” he adds.

Having made his millions in just a few years from immigrating, Jha decided it was time to give back to the country which has been so kind to him. He set up his charity, the POA Educational Foundation, dedicated to championing mainstream Canadian causes.

Why First Nations?

Just as his charitable foundation was up and running, Jha happened to hear a speech by Grand Chief Stan Beardy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation about how people on his reserve were suffering. The chief went on to talk about the dismal conditions on the reserve and the plight of aboriginal youth.

Jha just could not comprehend why the original people of the land were so far behind when measured against the rest of Canada. “It’s like the third world living in the midst of a prosperous G8 country,” he says, between sips of tea.

“I knew it in my heart that I must do something for this community, as after all they are the original inhabitants of the land which has been so good to me.”

For Jha the road out of Nepal and into Canada was paved with hard work and entrepreneurship. “I firmly believe in wealth creation, and entrepreneurship is the way to make it happen,” says Jha, who recently received the Global Indian Award 2011 from the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty. “You don’t need a doctorate to be a successful businessman. All you need is the drive and wisdom to do so.”

Not one to be a bleeding heart, Jha immediately got down to fact checking and what he found amazed yet troubled him.

Ticking time bomb

“The aboriginal population is a ticking time bomb, as they have what we call demographic dividend,” he said at the convocation speech at Toronto’s Ryerson University in 2009. “Our workforce is aging and birth rate reduction is compounding. That is however not the case among First Nations. Between 2001 and 2026 more than 600,000 aboriginal youth will enter the labour market, and with an annual population growth of 350% more than the rest of Canada, we ignore them at our peril,” says Jha, who was honoured with an Honorary Doctor of Law by the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto.

He feels Canada’s immigration policy, which was crafted to entice young, highly skilled people with high earning potential to enter the job market, has not been particularly successful. A 2007 Statistics Canada study shows the income profile of recent immigrants deteriorated by significant amounts from 2000 to 2004. A Fraser Institute report suggests we are spending more on resettling immigrants than the tax revenue received from them over the same period.

Jha looks northward for the solution to this problem. “We must get the First Nations ready. If not, it will lead to social unrest.”

Since setting up the POA Educational Foundation in 2001, he has granted $350,000 in university and college endowments to promote education for First Nations youth. The foundation has also handed out over $300,000 in seed money to aboriginals to help them start their own businesses.

Jha has helped get the problem on the public radar. Jha’s approach is not primarily driven by social justice. It is from the angle of helping Canada.

“It takes generations to get people ready for jobs, but to do business you need wisdom and smarts. Before the Europeans came to Canada the aboriginals were traders [...] I feel the quickest way to get them back on their feet is through wealth creation.”

“And in hindsight, I feel I could not have found a more worthy cause than helping the original inhabitants of this great country I now call home.”

Success story

Jha was proved right when Darcy Kejick, a high school drop-out from the Northern Spirit Lake First Nation in northwest Ontario, made his first million. Jha’ s POA Educational Foundation gave him $15,000 in seed capital, and today Kejick is the owner of a gas station, a grocery store and a motel on his reserve.

The government of Canada is pouring billions of dollars into native reserves and yet, according to Statistics Canada in 2006, 13.3% of working age aboriginals were unemployed, as compared to only 5.2% for non-aboriginal Canadians. Only 42% finished high school as compared to 61% for the rest of Canada. To Jha it’s abundantly clear that this approach of “flinging more money” is not working as well as it was designed to.

“The way out of this is by empowering them to become entrepreneurs. Society will give you silent solid recognition when you create wealth. That should be the focus, not jobs. We must help them help themselves,” he says as he heads out on his morning run.

For more information on the POA Educational Foundation please visit www.poafoundation.org