Juan Carlos Reyes is the organizer of the annual Learning Together conference and an aboriginal consultant with Efficiency.ca. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian aboriginal people. This column was originally published in 2009.
Given that Aboriginal communities have the fastest growing youth demographic in Canada and that most new exploration and mining developments are near Aboriginal communities, it makes sense for the shortage of workers in the mining industry to be offset by the recruitment of these youth. But the reality seems to be quite different. Far too few Aboriginal youth are entering the mining industry. Unless we do something about it, this trend will continue and they will continue to be under-represented in the industry.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a ghost town — a community that has been virtually abandoned by human inhabitants — usually because of the failure of economic activities that supported the town. Due to the cyclical nature of the minerals industry and the fact that mining exploits non-renewable resources, mines are notorious for leaving ghost towns in their wake. Why is this relevant to this article? It is because most First Nations communities would be ghost towns without government assistance provided to support the membership.
Most remote First Nations have an extraordinarily high unemployment rate — some even as high as 90 per cent. Although there are many candidates for potential work, there is no industry to provide the much-needed employment. Community members are trapped in these virtual ghost towns with no potential or hope for change. But even if an “employment fairy” was to appear in such a community and magically create opportunity for everyone, this would not solve the problem. There are generations of potential employees who have not acquired the basic skills that are expected of today’s workers. For most Aboriginal people, the integration curve into the mainstream employment world is therefore very steep.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the negligence of the government towards its duty of providing proper education to Aboriginal communities. A particularly frustrating example of this is the development (or rather, the non-development) of the elementary school in the Attawapiskat First Nation. Here is a community that has abundant potential employment for their youth as long as they can get educated. But they can’t get that education because they lack appropriate schooling facilities.
Back in 1979, a large diesel spill contaminated the land under the school in Attawapiskat. Since then, teachers, students and other employees have chronically suffered from severe headaches and nausea. The community has been promised a school by the last three Indian Affairs ministers.
In August 2007, Minister Jim Prentice and the community approved the final draft of the plans for the new school. Construction was to begin in the spring of 2008. But in December 2007, the new minister, Chuck Strahl, cancelled the plans, stating that “there were other communities that took priority and that there were no health and safety concerns in Attawapiskat.” As far as the integration of Aboriginal youth into the productive workforce is concerned, such delays on the part of the government in discharging its duty only make matters worse.
The pieces to form the solution to the problems of Aboriginal unemployment and the mining industry human resources shortage appear to fit together easily. The mining industry and the Aboriginal communities are themselves the solution to one another’s problems. However, when you take a closer look at the challenges that exist, the pieces do not fit quite so easily. The solution requires mutual understanding and collaboration, and, most importantly, a realistic implementation plan. Case studies show that many companies have successfully integrated a high percentage of Aboriginal employment into their operations and have learned how to do it well.
In the next article, I plan to take a more in-depth look at one of those success stories to demonstrate how even small exploration companies have had great success with a very limited budget.