As businesses develop strategies to gain a competitive advantage in this unpredictable economic environment, smart companies are looking to the Aboriginal population as an emerging domestic market and source of talent.
While unemployment may be on the rise, it is safe to say this is a short- to medium-term problem. Over the long run, companies will face significant challenges in attracting and maintaining a workforce. Aboriginal Peoples represent a talent pool that has yet to be significantly tapped.
Over the last 10 years, the Aboriginal population increased by 45 per cent, nearly six times faster than the non-Aboriginal population. Today, 48 per cent of the Aboriginal population is under the age of 25 and 54 per cent of Aboriginal Peoples live in urban centers.
Nowhere is this young, urban labour force more prevalent than in the West, where by 2017 Aboriginals could make up 30 per cent of the 20- to 29-year-old age group in Saskatchewan and 25 per cent of this group in Manitoba.
Aboriginal communities are also being viewed as a potential customer base. There are more then 630 Aboriginal governments in Canada that provide essential programs and services to community members. These governments, like any level of government, have buying needs. Furthermore, settled land claims provide important assets to communities in the form of land, cash and real decision-making power.
Since 1973, 20 comprehensive claims have been settled involving more than four-million square kilometres of land and $2 billion. This infusion of capital has sparked regional economic activity, with Aboriginal communities owning airlines, oil and gas extraction companies and fishing operations. These business entities are often created in partnership with non-Aboriginal companies, thus offering a promising revenue opportunity for both parties.
According to a 2002 federal government survey, the number of Aboriginal businesses grew at nine times the rate of non-Aboriginal businesses over a 10-year period. Today, it is estimated more then 34,000 Aboriginal businesses exist in Canada — profitable small- to medium-sized enterprises in a range of industries, including construction, manufacturing, transportation and professional services.
For companies interested in opportunities to work with Aboriginal Peoples, businesses and communities, the Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program offered by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business is an excellent start. Launched in 2001, PAR:
• assists companies in establishing an effective strategy to maximize involvement in the Aboriginal market
• helps companies assess performance in relations with Aboriginal communities
• recognizes those companies committed to working with Aboriginal Peoples, businesses and communities.
Companies that want to participate in PAR must begin with a commitment at the highest level — the chief executive officer. This senior-level buy-in is critical if a company is to undergo the necessary internal changes to become an employer of choice for the Aboriginal market.
PAR focuses on four sectors:
• employment (representation, type of employment and opportunities for advancement)
• business development (supplier diversity)
• individual capacity development (individual access to training, education and professional development initiatives)
• community relations (community involvement and investment leading to organizational and community partnerships).
In PAR, companies establish goals and are not measured against any external industry benchmark. Corporate goals and objectives are established, action plans are developed and progress is captured in a PAR application for certification.
While a company has the autonomy of a self-assessment, the National Quality Institute reviews and verifies the application. This verification is then submitted to an independent PAR jury to determine whether it is at the beginning of the PAR journey (bronze), has made a significant accomplishment (silver) or is exhibiting leadership and sustainability (gold).
PAR’s members include some of the most successful companies in North America that are changing the “normal” way of doing business to tap into the Aboriginal market. For example, Diavik Diamond Mines in Yellowknife incorporates a flexible approach to formal education as a basic requirement for Aboriginal applicants, to ensure they are not systemically excluded from opportunities.
Another example is Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries’ work with Aboriginal community members to identify areas of cultural or spiritual significance so the company’s harvesting activities near Athabasca, Alta., don’t disturb them.
Companies can also benefit from the Mastering Aboriginal Inclusion program offered by the Aboriginal Human Resources Council. This program, adopted by such notable companies as Encana and Cameco, begins with a history of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and then looks at various corporate case studies that offer valuable insights and serious strategies for recruiting, training, retaining and advancing a proud and productive Aboriginal workforce.
Clint Davis is the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business in Toronto. For more information, visit www.ccab.com.