For First Nations, Great Jobs in a Controversial Industry -by Katie Hyslop (The – July 26, 2013)

One organization’s success teaching Aboriginal people mining skills isn’t without complications.

Unemployment for Aboriginal people in the province is twice as high as the rest of British Columbians. But Aboriginal people are defying the employment odds in the province’s mining industry, thanks in part to the BC Aboriginal Training Association (BCAMTA), which provides job training for the mining industry to Aboriginal people in B.C.

In a July 22 press conference in Vancouver, the association released a PricewaterhouseCoopers audit of their practices from their start in January 2010 until March 2013. Results show the organization has registered 1,533 training candidates, 500 of which have successfully achieved employment in their field.

BCAMTA’s work has paid off for the economy, too. CEO Laurie Sterritt says a $6.68-million federal government investment to start the program has translated into a $53.4-million annual contribution to B.C.’s GDP.

“This isn’t a one time boost to the economy: this is an amount that will grow as our employee candidates get salary increases, earn bonus payouts, and move up the ladder to more senior positions,” she said. About 1,400 people remain in training today, which means anything from pre-job skills to apprenticeships in positions like heavy-duty mechanic, welder, and electrician.

According to the audit, the average full-time salary for Aboriginal mine workers after BCAMTA training is $52,959. That’s almost $20,000 more than the average Aboriginal wage in the province, and $8,000 more than the average entry-level wage in the mining industry.

But while mining has become a valuable source of employment, it’s also a source of frustration and anger for Aboriginal people. First Nations bands and organizations across the province have publicly condemned the opening or expansion of mines like the New Prosperity Mine in the Cariboo region, the Huckleberry Mine near Houston, and the Red Chris Mine near Dease Lake.

In a June press release expressing opposition to the proposed New Prosperity Mine, Assembly of First Nations BC (AFN-BC) Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said concern for the land and environment trumps economic benefits.

“We all want opportunities for economic development, but not at all costs. Our culture and lands are vitally critical to the health and well-being of our communities,” she said.

More women in mining

The audit, commissioned by BCAMTA’s board, found 63 per cent of grads with jobs were unemployed prior to training. In fact, six per cent of the province’s mining sector employees are Aboriginal, even though B.C.’s population is just 4.7 per cent self-identified Aboriginal people.

The number of women BC AMTA trains has also increased. In 2010, the male to female ratio for program participants was 1:3; today it’s 1:2.

“Our candidate pool is about 37 per cent women,” said Sterritt, adding the industry norm was 15 per cent women employees.

“I’ve heard from many mining companies that they’re very interested in female operators for their big pieces of equipment because they have a certain finesse and a care for their equipment, and it’s a big, expensive piece of equipment.”

Although initial funding came from the federal Ministry of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, BCAMTA is now a federally registered charity. Since 2012, they have signed funding agreements with mining companies like New Gold Inc. and Seabridge Gold Inc., as well as organizations like the Northern Development Initiative Trust.

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