From prison to profession

Ready for a second chance at life, Colin discovered his true potential with the help of a donor-supported agency.

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When Colin thought about his future, the last place he ever expected to end up was college.

After a troublesome time in his teens, Colin spent most of his twenties in a federal penitentiary—and he worried life after prison wouldn’t be much better.

“Once you’re in the system, it can become a pattern,” shared Colin. “It’s really easy to get locked up again.”

But Colin was determined to break that cycle.

His first step? Going back to school to earn his high school diploma.

“You need a foundation if you want to do anything,” explained Colin, who was a credit or two short of a grade nine education. “With that, I can build forward.”

So, with a new sense of purpose, Colin moved to Winnipeg and enrolled in adult education classes. He surprised himself by his academic performance, earning the highest grade in English out of his entire class.

The employment rate for men aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma was 67% in 2016 (Stats Canada).

During that time, a representative from Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology (MITT) visited Colin’s class to share their course offerings. When Colin heard the words “industrial millwright,” something instantly clicked.

For the first time, Colin knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. For the first time, he could imagine a better future—one with higher education, a steady job, and his own home.

And yet, the barriers to get there felt nearly impossible. Affording college tuition meant finding a decent job—which wouldn’t be easy with limited work experience and a criminal record. Statistically, Colin could expect to earn less than half the income of men without a federal offence.

As if that wasn’t daunting enough, Colin would have to job search at a time of economic upheaval: during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had disproportionately impacted Indigenous Winnipeggers like himself.

By May 2020, unemployment for Indigenous men rose to 20%, compared to 12% for non-Indigenous men.

But even with the odds stacked against Colin, a social safety net was there to catch him.

After graduating, Colin was referred to Opportunities for Employment (OFE), a United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency helping more than 27,000 Winnipeggers find work over the past 20 years.*

Although he was a little skeptical, Colin decided to give it a shot. He began taking weekly courses offered by OFE, where he built critical employment skills such as writing resumes and preparing for job interviews. And the more he learned, the more his confidence grew.

“Nobody took the time to teach me these things before,” explained Colin. “I feel more prepared for the workplace now.”

During the three-month program, Colin also earned a trophy case of workplace health and safety certifications, which gave him a sense of pride.

“Colin showed such focus, determination, and a strong work ethic,” said Jennifer Wiebe, a program manager at OFE.

OFE staff were so impressed by Colin, they referred him to an employer seeking manual labourers. Colin nailed his interview and achieved every OFE participant’s dream: transitioning straight from the program into a stable job with benefits.

“Without a place like OFE, I don’t think I’d have employment right now,” shared Colin. Better yet, he could afford to move into his own place, too—something that once felt like a fantasy.

Colin stands proudly outside his home in Winnipeg.

“Without a place like OFE, I don’t think I’d have employment right now.”

Six months into his new job, another dream came true for Colin . . . in the form of an acceptance letter from MITT! Earning a spot in the Industrial Mechanic/Millwright Program felt especially momentous to Colin as the first member of his family to pursue post-secondary education.

Now a full-time college student, Colin’s aspirations have only gotten bigger. After graduating, he hopes to land an apprenticeship and even gain red seal status one day.

As he works with resolve to achieve these goals, Colin is building himself a life without poverty, a future with possibility. And he wants these same things for others, too. He often recommends OFE to people in his social circle—including his younger sister, who ended up completing the program and finding a steady job, too.

“It takes good supports like OFE to help you get to that next step,” said Colin. “It’s like they’re putting a hand out to show you the way.”

*Opportunities for Employment (OFE) offers a wide range of free employment services. Their Community Employment Support Program enables job seekers with a criminal record to access numerous supports, including working one-on-one with an employment consultant, so they can pursue and maintain meaningful work.

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Katie BergmanColin