Canada’s quiet labour crisis

The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Peoples hovers at three times the national average

Hidden racism underlying the belly of Canadian workplaces and practices is keeping Canada’s aboriginal population out of the workforce at alarming rates.

And, even if recruited and hired, aboriginals make less money, get passed over for promotions, and are less likely to stay with one employer for any significant amount of time.

Although the labour situation of aboriginals has slowly improved, it is still simmering just above the crisis level. Some critics argue that we are already in the beginning of a crisis and that measures need to be taken immediately before it reaches a critical point.

But even if access improves, without proper education and training initiatives aimed specifically at aboriginal youth, labour participation rates won’t make any significant leaps forward. In a recent report, the United Nation’s International Labour Congress blasted Canada on its inaction with respect to the aboriginal population.

Things have changed in the workplace today; direct, overt racism is no longer tolerated. But, as the authors of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s (CRRF) report Unequal Access point out, it is the “hidden, polite, subtle” racism that is barring visible minorities, qualified immigrants and aboriginals

from participating at equal levels in the labour force.

“A lot has changed in our society but the workplace is a little behind,” said Jean Lock Kunz, co-author of the CRRF report and senior research associate with the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD).

“No manager would say openly that they wouldn’t hire somebody (because of their race). The reason why it’s called hidden is because they don’t want to say it openly. They look for other reasons and ways to discriminate.”

All of the 62 visible minority members of the CRRF’s focus group who took part in the study, a third of which were aboriginals, said they were given menial tasks by their bosses, excluded from the “inner circle” at work and stereotyped.

“You can regulate behaviour but you can’t regulate attitudes,” said Kunz.

Here is how aboriginals are fairing in the Canadian labour market. The unemployment rate for aboriginals is almost triple the Canadian average. The unemployment rate for those who live on reserves or aboriginal settlements — roughly 295,000 — is 29 per cent, and that rate drops to 26 per cent for those living off reserves.

In the workplace, aboriginals along with foreign-born visible minorities only earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by foreign-born white Canadians. Those who do have a university education, are less likely to hold managerial or professional jobs.

“The higher up the organizational ladder you go, the lighter the skin tone gets. Higher education doesn’t produce the same returns (for aboriginal and visible minorities) as it does for white Canadians,” said Kunz.

But these facts hardly make a rumble. And while Canada’s “brain drain” continues to dominate the front pages of newspapers, it’s the country’s “brain waste” that should be more disquieting, said Kunz.

“What will it cost us if we don’t address these issues? The wake-up call is looking at the costs of underemployed, especially during economic boom times. Clearly the talents of aboriginals are being under-utilized or wasted as a result of systemic discrimination. This is not good for the productivity of the Canadian economy and the cohesion of our society,” said Kunz, adding that keeping an underclass of people drains on government resources instead of contributing to economic growth.

Corporate strategy
Employers alone can’t be to blame for the situation, although improving employment prospects, including increased access to training and education, will be critical for economic growth.

A majority of employers echoed this concern in a 1998 Conference Board of Canada report, Employment Prospects for Aboriginals, with 91 per cent of Canadian employers stating that increasing the number of aboriginals in their workforce was an explicit objective.

But getting there requires a solid and supported corporate strategy that takes a myriad of factors into consideration, including pre-employment education. (High school dropout rates are highest among aboriginal youth. In 1996, about three in 10 aboriginal youth did not finish high school, compared to less than one in 10 among visible minorities. Only slightly more than 50 per cent of aboriginals have completed secondary education.)

“(Having a corporate strategy) is important because aboriginals are among a traditionally disadvantaged group and in order to reach that labour pool, organizations have to really go out of their way and unless they have a strategy for reaching them, it’s not going to happen,” said Stelios Loizides, senior research associate with the Conference Board’s Canadian Centre for Business in the Community.

Half of the firms who took part in the board’s survey reported not having a strategy in place to address these issues.

Improving educational prospects is a major objective of the Cameco Corporation in northern Saskatchewan. As a part of its pre-employment strategy, the mining company has donated $1-million to the University of Saskatchewan to increase the number of aboriginal engineers and professionals. In the short term, the company has also removed an employment requirement, which requires a Grade 12 diploma, in order to allow a greater number of people employment opportunities.

The commitment is a part of their overall corporate strategy to improve the situation of aboriginals in their community.

“We wanted to secure our long-term potential so we needed to establish a very special relationship with our aboriginal community. It’s not only about social consciousness; there’s an economic reality,” said Jamie McIntyre, human resources manager at Cameco.

For Cameco, and other resources-based firms that predominantly operate in highly populated aboriginal communities, making the commitment to improving the labour prospects of aboriginals is also based on economics and not just a keen sense of social responsibility.

“Cameco knows that aboriginals will not stand by and see resources explored without their involvement and benefit. Without their participation, the company risks lost investment and exploration opportunities,” states the Conference Board’s report.

Cameco, with mines and mills spread throughout northern Saskatchewan, employs one of the largest aboriginal groups in Canada, with aboriginals comprising 40 per cent of its operations workforce, 60 per cent of underground mine workers and 60 per cent of its mill operations. But, it didn’t happen overnight, said McIntyre.

“As a company you have to do everything you can to set the table for that to happen. It needs to be done in a long-term, strategic way.”

Creating opportunity is only the first step. Companies also have to consider the special needs of aboriginal employees. In the workplace, HR departments need to be sensitive to the issues faced specifically by aboriginals in order to keep them.

That will inevitably require a shift in the corporate mindset; a shift away from rigid, practices that may seem harmless to a non-native employee.

Initiatives like mentoring, basic training, educational support and family assistance programs take on a greater significance for aboriginal employees who may be new to the world of work.

“For a lot of our employees they are the first in their family to have full-time, paid employment. You need to understand that transition to the workplace because a lot of issues they face come from that,” said McIntyre.

But employers can only go so far. Governments need to get involved, partnerships need to be developed, and individuals need to be willing, said Loizides.

“It’s about accommodation. They need to both be willing to help each other.”

Labour prospects for aboriginal Canadians
According to the Canadian Centre for Business in the Community, the aboriginal working age population will dramatically increase over the next 10 years, with 160,000 aboriginals looking for work by 2006 to maintain current levels of labour participation.

By 2006, aboriginals will constitute between 2.4 to 20 per cent of the labour market in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Key barriers to aboriginal participation in the Canadian workforce include: a mismatch in where the jobs are and where aboriginal communities are situated; mismatch between skills and what employers are looking for; low numbers of aboriginal applicants even when jobs are available because of information gaps and poor networking; a lack of role models in high-demand careers, such as computer science, engineering and business.

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