Feds pledge big money but no plan to tackle Aboriginal unemployment

The coming labour shortage is an 'opportunity for the Aboriginal population'

Following a First Ministers’ meeting in November, the federal government promised $5 billion over 10 years to improve the lives of Aboriginal Canadians. The plan focuses on improving education, health, housing and economic opportunities.

But while it lays out detailed strategies, and funds, for health, housing and elementary and secondary education, the details are still sketchy on how the government plans to tackle the overwhelmingly high unemployment and poverty rates among Aboriginals.

“There were no specific commitments made to post-secondary education and that was a disappointment,” said Valerie Gideon, director of health and social development at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

However, one reason for the lack of details is that the economic and labour force issues were brought to the agenda at a later stage and the meeting served as a preliminary discussion, with plans for more specifics in the next year, said Gideon. In the meantime, different levels of government and Aboriginal groups will meet to discuss how best to proceed.

“It was jointly agreed, with the federal government and the Aboriginal organizations, that policy development was going to be done together,” said John Kozij, director of policy for the Aboriginal affairs directorate of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC). “Gone are the days when the federal government dictated policy and program design to Aboriginal people.”

It makes sense for some of the $700 million pledged to improving education and boosting employment levels to go into preparing Aboriginal individuals for the looming labour shortage, said Tonio Sadik, the AFN’s senior policy advisor.

“First Nations are a tremendous pool of labour that is available to fill some of those gaps that are growing and we would like to see the government recognize that and really invest in First Nations people,” said Sadik.

This is especially true since the Aboriginal population is much younger than the Canadian population as a whole, said Kozij. “The looming worker shortage can be seen as an opportunity for the Aboriginal population,” he said. “They’re going to be particularly important as a population that will determine the prosperity of some provinces. It’s really important to get that young population in work and in skilled trades.”

Boosting apprenticeships and university entrances will go a long way to employing more Aboriginal Canadians and closing the income gap. The median income for the Canadian population as a whole is $25,000, while the median in the Aboriginal population is $16,000. The unemployment rate in the Aboriginal population is 19.1 per cent — more than twice the national rate of 7.4 per cent.

To develop economic opportunities, First Nations communities need to equip their labour forces to drive the economy, as well as create jobs in the community, said Judy Whiteduck, AFN director of economic development.

“They need to develop partnerships with corporate Canada and build a business image,” she said. “There needs to be more synergy between those communities and those opportunities where there will be jobs at the end of the day.”

The Aboriginal affairs directorate’s Aboriginal Skills and Employment Program, which is targeted at providing long-term employment to Aboriginal people in various regions of the country, creates such partnerships.

There are currently eight projects, soon to be nine, in place between major employers and Aboriginal populations. The partnerships include a forestry project in New Brunswick, a fish harvesting project on Baffin Island, diamond mine projects in the Northwest Territories and northern Ontario, two projects in Alberta involving the oilsands and the construction of the Sea to Sky Highway in Vancouver.

Whether any of the promises in the agreement come to fruition remains to be seen.

“We don’t know whether those commitments are going to be followed through on,” said Sadik. “We’re working towards a post-election strategy. These issues are not tied to one political party or another — they’re issues that need to be dealt with regardless.”

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