It’s not time to sit and wait; First Nations should make most of mineral market lull – by Daniel Bland (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – November 20, 2016)

Daniel Bland has spent the past four years living on the James Bay Cree reserve of Mistissini in northern Quebec, working as lead instructor for Cree Human Resources Development/Cree Nation Government on the design and delivery of basic skills and work-readiness training programs in Cree communities.

Mining and resource extraction companies across Canada continue to ride out a slump in commodity prices that market analysts suggest may continue throughout 2017 before showing signs of any extended recovery. But while that is bad news for mining companies, it could be a blessing in disguise for remote First Nations hoping to benefit from their proximity to potential mining operations.

Canadian policy institutes have paid considerable attention to determining the labour market demands of major mining projects, many on or near aboriginal land. Last fall, the Conference Board of Canada produced a forecast of employment opportunities over the next decade in resource development projects by occupation and region. It estimates there will be 65,000 new job openings nationwide from 2015 to 2025 in mining and other resource extraction projects.

There has been much less attention paid, however, to assessing the educational, skill and experience levels of the on reserve aboriginal populations who will supply much of the labour force needed to meet those demands.

Our experience helping train members of the James Bay Cree First Nation for mining jobs suggests two things are particularly important to do in this regard. First, set up a skills, education and work experience inventory of your working-age residents. The more up to date and accurate information you can gather now about your labour force, the better your chances of tapping into training and employment opportunities in the future.

The Conference Board estimates almost three-quarters of new mining jobs will require formal training or education. However many training programs have academic pre-requisites, frequently Grade 10 or 11 math or English.

What this means in practice is that not everybody on your reserve who wants to enroll in, say, an underground mining training program will be able to do so. But to know that for sure – and take steps to address it while you still have time – you need the information. And the sooner, the better.

When you are told in a year or 18 months that there are half a dozen underground miner jobs at a local mine for your people if you can get them trained in six months, it will be too late. Start now.

Second, assess the basic workplace skills of your working-age residents.

Successful training programs tailor their technical training to the skills strengths and weaknesses of their participants. But to do that, you need to know what kind of basic literacy and numeracy skills they possess. There are a variety of assessment tools available to do this, many available online.

Assessment scores will give individuals a snapshot of where they stand in terms of the kind of real, workplace skills that are needed on the job. And show them the skills ‘gaps’ between where they are now and where they need to be to fulfill the requirements of the mining job they are interested in.

If you start now, they will have time to improve their skills and narrow or even close those gaps.

Aboriginal communities, like non-aboriginal communities, are diverse and different and there is no one-size-fits-all program template for training. But with up-to-date labour force information collected and workplace skills assessment data at hand, the people who design the training programs and work with your people when the time comes will have a solid foundation to build on.

Time spent on these two tasks between now and then will be time well spent.

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