Sixdion brings First Nations into new economy workplace

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OTTAWA, Ontario - When Rob Seto, Ojibway, first handed in his resume for a job at Sixdion Inc., he recalls his "current boss looked at it and laughed."

Seto's main experience had been installing heating units and he was looking for a post in the new world of computers and information technology.

But, the company saw his potential and gave him a chance. Now he is project manager for a rapidly expanding contract with the Canadian Department of National Defense that has made jobs for some 30 members of Ottawa's Ojibway Indian community.

What's more, Sixdion, a Canadian Aboriginal company based on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in southern Ontario, won this contract in open competition, without benefit of government set-aside.

The company started in 1996 as a partnership between the Six Nations and Canadian businessman Murray Dion. It specializes in information and documents management. The success of the pilot project for which Seto was hired is leading to further contracts, and more job prospects, in the new computer-based economy.

The company has just announced a "teaming agreement" with Montreal-based CGI Group, which with a capitalization of $7.2 billion (Canadian), calls itself the largest independent information services provider in North America. Sixdion will be CGI's preferred partner for all of its data conversion projects.

This growth is the payoff for Sixdion's emphasis on high quality work, said Lewis Staats, Mohawk, chief executive of the company.

Sixdion made ways last August when it announced it had qualified for the rigorous ISO 9002 certification, a global standard of quality in business and manufacturing procedures. (ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization.) This registration was the first for a Canadian information technology company based on a First Nation, Staats said.

The current contract with National Defense started in January as a 10-day project with three temporary employees, including Seto. Their job was to transfer paper files into electronic form, part of the Canadian government's vast Records/Document/Information Management System (RDIMS) effort.

Seto had the tedious chore of scanning old documents into a computer. As the project kept winning month-by-month renewals, it took on more and more workers, mainly First Nation. To date, the project has a staff level of about 26, with remarkably low turnover.

To widespread surprise, the company was able to build this tightly knit staff by hiring exclusively through the Odawa-Oneida Friendship Center in Ottawa.

"There are a lot of familiar faces here from Odawa-Oneida," Seto said. He is an Ottawa Native whose mother came from the Ojibway-Wikwemekonge Reservation on Lake Huron and his father was a Cantonese immigrant. "There are a lot of familiar faces from pow wows and other First Nation events. They are very community oriented."

Odawa-Oneida was working to improve its job center when Sixdion came along, but the outspoken Dion seems to have given it a very big push.

"We were not just going out to hire Aboriginal people," he said. "We were simply going out to hire good people."

Although the candidates were underskilled, he said, "our philosophy is to get us the people and we can train them. Desire to get ahead is 75 percent of the necessary skill."

Seto added that many on his team have some office experience. He's had one year of college.

But, the work isn't simply "heads down" data entry, Dion said. 'The folks have to be pretty well trained. It requires subject-matter expertise. They have to be familiar with the files."

The jobs are there, ironically, because the main purpose of Sixdion was not just to create jobs, said Dr. Robert Hathaway, Cherokee, a member of the board of directors. "Our goal has to be to make a profit. We have to be a profitable, sustainable business. If a profitable, sustainable business has been created, it will create jobs."

Dion declares the pilot project a success by the most hard-nosed business standard. It led to the teaming agreement with CGI to support its RDIMS work throughout the Canadian government. "We're hoping to hire many more," Dion said.

Seto measures the group spirit by a prank his staff played on him the other day.

At a morning meeting called to answer an employee's complaints, he said those who were dissatisfied could put their security passes in a box on his desk.

At the lunch break, his assistant came in with her pass and, one by one, his entire team dropped their IDs in the box - before revealing it was a joke.

"I enjoyed it," Seto said. "It showed how the whole team could pull together.