Overcoming sense of exclusion is key to making inroads in mainstream jobs

Unemployment rate for Aboriginal Canadians remains high at about 20 per cent
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/20/2004


ohn Kim Bell is worried about the future of Aboriginal Canadians. Too many continue to struggle to find work outside the Native community.

Action has to be taken now to avert a crisis, says the president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Canadians remains unacceptably high at roughly 20 per cent. With a huge number of young Aboriginals coming of working age in the next few years, steps must be taken to ensure people can find work, he says. At this point, most jobs are on reserves or with Aboriginal-owned organizations, and that must change.

“(Native organizations) can’t employ all the people now. The only place for them to go is to industry. The only way we are going to do that is through education and training, and I fear we are not doing it.”

There are, here and there, encouraging signs, he says. Gains have been made in the energy sector. A growing number of Aboriginal-owned-and-operated businesses bring more job opportunities. There is also a greater appreciation of diversity generally, and federal employment equity legislation provides an impetus to meet diversity objectives.

But many Aboriginals struggle to take advantage of these opportunities, more so than other groups, Kim Bell says.

Many Aboriginal Canadians simply feel they don’t belong in the corporate environment, he says. That’s a problem for both the First Nations community and corporate Canada to address.

Aboriginal Canadians have been prevented from playing a part in the modern corporate world for so long that many now feel that exclusion is normal. “We ourselves have a view that we should not participate. We stop ourselves from wanting to participate,” Kim Bell says.

But most importantly, progress will be difficult so long as the high school dropout rate continues at around 70 per cent, he says.

The Aboriginal population is one of the fastest growing in the country. By 2006, there will be 365,000 youth of employment age. If the dropout rate doesn’t come down, there could be more than 250,000 kids without a high school diploma — a great cost to the government, he says.

“In terms of employment issues, we need to address the educational system. Somehow, by whatever means, we have to reduce the 70-per-cent dropout rate.”

But Kim Bell also puts some blame for the problem squarely on the shoulders of the Aboriginal leaders who, he says, don’t like the idea of people leaving reserves to find work. Because so much government funding is sent directly to the reserves and is granted on a per capita basis, some band leaders don’t want their people to go to cities to find work.

Kelly Lendsay, president of the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Council of Canada, says it is not as simple as that. Aboriginal leaders may indeed be concerned about the sustainability of their communities, but surveys have shown most people on reserves are willing to leave the reserve for work.

Employers should take heed and start taking action to attract and retain those people, he says. It is true that educational levels are behind the national average, but real improvements have been made in recent years, he says.

“Each year more and more Aboriginal people are going on to post-secondary training and post-secondary education. We are seeing positive signs in some provinces where Aboriginal people are making headway in terms of trades certification and training.”

Aboriginal Canadians will be an increasingly important part of the workforce, he says. If corporate decision-makers aren’t taking steps to recruit more Aboriginal employees and, just as importantly, make the workplace attractive to Aboriginal workers, they either believe they won’t have a problem finding capable talent in the future or else they’re simply overlooking one of the best opportunities for a fresh supply of employees, he says.

The Native labour pool is growing faster than the non-Aboriginal pool, he says. But rather than looking to draw from that pool, too many employers’ first reaction is to go overseas, he says.

It would be good to see employers put the same energy and enthusiasm into recruiting Aboriginals that they put into recruiting drives overseas, he says.

There may be a perception that turnover is worse for Aboriginals, but in part that is just a stereotype, says Lendsay. In many cases, if Aboriginal turnover is high, it is because turnover is high across the organization; or else the organization isn’t doing the right things to make the few Aboriginal employees it has feel comfortable.

“It’s like the lone female executive of the ’70s who didn’t stay with an organization. She didn’t quit work, she went somewhere else where she felt more appreciated,” he says. “If Aboriginal people leave a corporate workplace, they don’t drop out of the labour force. They will go somewhere else.

“Aboriginal people are just like other Canadians. They will choose employers where they feel welcome.”

It takes time and money to put mentoring in place, but employers will find that it more than pays for itself in improved retention, as well as improved productivity, accelerated training and quicker development, he says.

“Mentoring is probably the single most important strategy any company can put in place. To me mentoring is the solution to a lot of retention issues.”

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