Indigenous labour is an untapped resource

Canadians opened their hearts and homes to Syrian refugees last year. It was a warm humanitarian gesture as well as an economic imperative: Canada relies on immigrants to sustain our work force.

    image: Government of Canada

Treatment of our Indigenous people is puzzling in both regards. Refugees from Indian Reserves do not receive a warm welcome. Communities don’t sponsor Indigenous families and put them up in homes. They are not being bombed but they are fleeing abominable conditions: mouldy housing, undrinkable water, poor education, appalling health care and little hope for employment. Instead of being helped, First Nations refugees often end up on city streets with few options for integration into society.

Not only are Indigenous Canadians uninvited in cities but the labour resource they represent is wasted.

The Centre for the Study of Living Standards released a report earlier this month entitled “The Contribution of Aboriginal People to Future Labour Force Growth in Canada.” The 36 page report outlines the wasted labour resource of Indigenous Canadians.

Indigenous citizens are the youngest, fastest growing demographic in Canada.

To start with, all Indigenous people are underemployed. More critically, participation of the 15-24 age group is 12 per cent lower than average. Only one-half of Indigenous youth are employed. That untapped resource could contribute to future labour force growth. It’s worse in the North where participation in the labour force is one-fifth the average.

If Canada’s Indigenous work force were developed, they would contribute to one-fifth of the future national labour growth. That contribution could be in the North, where they are most needed. As the global climate change warms and the climate of the North warms disproportionately, opportunities will open for jobs in resource extraction, infrastructure, housing and tourism. The expansion of the Indigenous work force In the North could comprise 83 per cent of total northern growth.

What would it take? The report states rather dryly:

“Indigenous people also face deficiencies in hours worked, employment, income by level of education and health among others. Progress must be based on Indigenous autonomy and this in turn will require strengthening administrative and managerial capacities, most likely under new institutional arrangements.”

In more vital words, it will take a reversal of our colonial past which was designed to dominate and assimilate Indigenous peoples. The Trudeau government made a good start when it divided the Indigenous portfolio in two with Jane Philpott becoming minister of Indigenous services and Carolyn Bennett becoming minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern Affairs.

Some criticise the move as increased bureaucracy but the split was recommended in 1996 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Both ministers are capable I can only hope they will succeed in ending the anachronistic Indian Act.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations is optimistic:

“First Nations are working to move beyond the Indian Act and re-asserting our jurisdiction and sovereignty over our own lands, title and rights.”

Let’s bring our Indigenous brothers and sisters in from the cold. And if compassion doesn’t motivate Canadians, maybe a bleak economic future without them will.

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