While Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples have successfully engaged with the natural resource sector, the relationship is an incomplete one that requires further diligence for all parties to receive its full benefit, says the co-author of a newly-released Macdonald-Laurier Institute report.
“Companies have been sincere about getting Aboriginals into the workforce, but they have not experienced anywhere near the success getting them into the higher ranks of that workforce,” said Ken Coates, senior fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian issues at MLI.
“We have a lot of low-end, low-skill work— [i.e.] truck drivers, janitors and things of that sort. Those jobs are available and [Aboriginal] people get employed, but they do not get a chance to move up into senior ranks, particularly on the engineering or scientific side of resource operations.”
The question is how to get more education and workplace preparation into Aboriginal communities, ensuring there are processes in place so First Nations and Métis can move up the “administrative employment ladder” as they spend time with these companies, he said.
“There is [room for improvement], and it is amazing as to just how that that has been growing. One of the fastest growing parts of the Canadian economy is Aboriginal business. They are growing at a ferocious rate, and they are doing very well.”
He added: “We need to ensure the companies are receptive and that there is an understanding of the indigenous communities’ ability to respond to their own priorities.
“Where you get a lot of cultural learnings and mutual respect, things are moving along quite nicely.”
According to Unearthing Human Resources: Aboriginal Skills Development and Employment in the Natural Resource Sector, the appropriate time to launch training, skills development and employment programs with native communities is about a decade before exploration and project development commences, and therefore a greater industry and governmental focus on creating a stable, long-term Aboriginal workforce is required.
“We are not precise about employment in any part of the Canadian economy, and we are always producing too many of one and not enough of the other, and these things always take a while to work themselves out. However, you can get some general thoughts in place, and then you can get governments working with Aboriginal communities to do training programs that are designed to line up with the jobs as they emerge,” said Coates.
He added: “Part of the problem is if you do not have preparation ahead of time. Using the example of a standard community in Northern Ontario, typically you have to do adult-based education so [potential workers] can get to the point where they are eligible for a college or university-type program. That often takes one or two years, and then you have a one- or- two-year training program. That’s four years.
“If you wait until the project is approved and you are ready to start work, by the time people are trained four years of work has already been done. The only way you can do this is to have work done on a broad base, and contribution from the resource sector really has to be clear and forthright about where are the opportunities.”
Too often the fortunes of Aboriginal communities are tied to the fortunes of a single project, notes MLI. Therefore, it would be better for all involved if workers in communities from a large area were trained and available to work in projects across the region.
While all participants in the resource sector have shown laudable commitments to training and employment programs, the proliferation of programs has become complicated and inefficient. Where co-ordinated efforts have been undertaken — such as with the Northern Labour Market Committee in northern Saskatchewan — there could be significant program delivery improvements.
According to Coates, engagement with native communities can help resolve location challenges associated with somewhat isolated operations. “There are not many communities — although Fort McMurray is a good example of the opposite — that have large-scale, secured operations close at hand.
“Where we have had great success in the resource sector has been in those places where the companies are prepared to look at a regional workforce, as they do with diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, for example, where they draw people from a fairly large reach. Rather than going across the country, they look at a variety of communities within the region itself.”
Aboriginal enterprises and ownership might be perhaps the most important part of ensuring the participation of those communities in the resource sector, Coates told the DOB, particularly with regards to the service and supply network. “Someone has to plow the roads so that you can get the vehicles in, somebody has to maintain the trucks, someone does the welding, and someone does all these other things.”
He added: “We have had a virtual explosion in Aboriginals on the services side of the supply area in Aboriginal-owned companies. They are getting in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in contracts out of resource companies and other related work for government. They have been extremely good about broadening their enterprises.”
For example, he noted, if a resource company provides a $500 million contract to an Aboriginal firm to plow the roads to the worksite, that firm can often use its equipment and workers to get another $500 million contract with government to plow the roads going into schools, hospitals or other public infrastructure.
He said: “They then provide more stable work, broadening their base away from the resource sector, developing more entrepreneurial skills, developing managerial skills, and that has been one of the untold success stories of the Canadian economy.”
Aboriginals demand for jobs will only become more acute in the future, suggests the report, and since these communities do not generally look to the banking sector, retail or government for large-scale employment, particularly in non-urban areas, the natural resource sector carries the burden of heightened Aboriginal employment expectations for the entire Canadian economy.
“Up until about 30 years ago, the resource sector was basically a very hands-off enterprise for Aboriginal folks, but still had quite dramatic impacts on the communities — roads were built, mining resource activity happened, people came into the territories in large numbers,” Coates said. “This became a focal point for Aboriginal concerns for economic development and environmental protection.
“Over the last 30 years, companies have reacted following court-directed government decisions, realizing that there are huge benefits for everybody if there is more indigenous engagement — a more stable, localized workforce, greater participation with the local community, lots of business opportunities, etcetera. We have actually done quite a good job given where we started from 30 years ago in finding places for Aboriginal people in the resource sector.”
According to Coates, while there is still much work to be done, Canada is probably doing better than most resource-rich countries when it comes to engaging with Aboriginal populations, which is largely due to corporate social responsibility and realizing that Aboriginal hires are good for business. “A lot of companies are coming to Canada to find out what is going on.”
In Scandinavia, for example, the resource development sector is only just evolving its relationships with the Sami people, he noted. In Australia, Coates said, industry is “well behind” on its engagement with the Aborigine. In the U.S., engagement is “more uneven,” with certain regions of the country such as Alaska performing fairly well when it comes to working with Native Americans. He added: “It varies, but in general Canada is doing quite well.”
The benefits companies enjoy from employing First Nations include workforce stability and insights into local weather and living conditions. However, further improvements could be challenged given the ongoing downturn in commodity prices, which has sent Canada’s resource sector into a tailspin.
For Aboriginal workers, communities and companies, the current downturn comes after more than a decade of rapid expansion in employment and business collaboration, stalling one of the most extensive examples of indigenous involvement in the Canadian market economy.
Ultimately, many Aboriginal communities want to work with industry and support resource development for the mutual benefit of all concerned, Coates said, but many of those communities must also work through a legacy spanning hundreds of years in which the mainstream society has mistreated or ignored them. “Some communities want to be heavily involved and others don’t want to be involved.”
However, he added, if industry does not engage with Aboriginals, then companies do not only risk losing out on the potential human resources assets to help with development, those companies also risk legitimizing Aboriginal opposition to projects — projects that increasingly require their support.
“Aboriginal communities want to know exactly what is going on, and what the benefits are to them in the short term and in the long-term.”