Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On any given summer day, you can find a seemingly-endless stream of people trickling down Coyote Cruises’s small staircase entrance into the “Penticton Channel,” eager to drift away on tubes down a lazy river.
Holding the general manager position of this busy summer enterprise in syilx homelands is 19-year-old Jacob George of the Penticton Indian Band (PIB), who stepped into the role earlier this year.
PIB-owned Coyote Cruises rents out tubes at the start of the channel and offers a shuttle service back at the end of a seven-kilometre float. George has been with the company since 2018 and has taken on a new leadership role within the company each year since.
“It’s definitely empowering and something to be proud about,” said George. “I want to set a good example for my community.”
George, who splits his working days with taking care of his two-year-old son, said he naturally falls into a caretaker role both at home and at work. He’s no stranger to helping his staff members beyond the summer season, regularly giving them rides to places or offering them advice when asked.
After a management switch-over in 2019, George and the rest of the Coyote Cruises staff were laid off, and invited to re-apply. George said he missed the deadline to apply for this round of hiring, but was able to squeeze in a last-minute interview because one of the managers recognized his potential.
“He saw me everyday at 6 a.m. walking to the bus stop to catch the early bus to go to school,” said George. “And he said, `Nobody who doesn’t have good work ethic is gonna do that, especially at that age.”’
As a leader within the business, George likes to use his experience to lead by example and to help create a generation of hard-workers and problem-solvers in the community.
“This job has really empowered me to talk to young people with a sense of authority,” he said. “It gives them structure in their lives which everybody needs, especially in the 10 weeks of the most unstructured time that they’ve ever had — summers.”
There are around 30 staff employed at Coyote Cruises, with the main demographic being youth in middle and high school working their first jobs.
George estimates that about one third of staff are Indigenous. Earlier this year, he visited various schools in town and invited Indigenous students to consider applying for a job at Coyote Cruises, because he wants to see more representation at the band-owned business.
Watching staff members grow to a level that he knows that they can reach, he said, is one of his favourite parts about the job.
“At the end of the day, you gotta realize this is their first job — and I was there. I was right there in their shoes,” he said. “We all start somewhere.”
sninaʔ Faith Richards, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, has been working at Coyote Cruises for two years now. The 18-year-old got the job through her sister, who had been hired with the help of George.
Richards described George as a great supporter, a good leader and the best manager she’s ever had.
“Jacob is the type of leader that wants you to do your very best, always, and will push you until you do that, in a positive manner,” said Richards. “He makes sure that you’re not pushing yourself to the point where you’re over-exhausting yourself, but doing the best you can and doesn’t want you to do any lower than that.”
Richards said she learned through George how to appropriately navigate difficult situations at work such as dealing with unruly customers.
“He’s inspired me a lot. Just making sure that I work as hard as I can and be a positive person, and being super happy all the time,” she said.
George is clear he wants to lead by example, and set a strong work ethic that team members can utilize for the rest of their lives.
“If this is their first job, it really sets a precedent for how things should be done in their later jobs,” he said.
Other colleagues described George’s leadership as gentle, and one that everybody respects. His ability to calmly resolve conflict and hold his authority amongst older customers and his peers — many of whom are the same age or not much older — was also praised by staff.
“I’ve had many staff say to me that they’re just so happy to have Jacob as their manager and leader,” said Coyote Cruises business partner Diana Stirling. “It’s been phenomenal to see how he works with people, and how he worked with his peers when he was a peer.”
George said his long-term goal is to own his own business. For now, he said his big plans for Coyote Cruises is to continue to focus on building leaders in the community.
“It’s great to see these young people rising and do what they do,” he said.