Indigenous Employment Training in Canada

A key part of JEDI’s mandate is to foster employment opportunities for Indigenous New Brunswickers. This is important since 20.1% of Indigenous New Brunswickers were unemployed as of the 2016 Census, compared to 10.9% for the non-Indigenous population. This is even higher than the national unemployment average, which is 15.2% for Indigenous and 7.4% for non-Indigenous Canadians.

Across the country, individuals, communities, and provincial and federal government agencies are working to address the issue of Indigenous unemployment. Federally, one of the key programs in this area is the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy (ASETS) program that is administered through the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). This program disperses funds to ‘agreement holders’ – usually Tribal Councils – who then distribute funding to First Nation communities. Employment Training Officers in these communities then provide assistance to Indigenous job seekers. The majority of this money goes to support training costs, although it is sometimes also used to provide wage subsidies to employers. Since 2010, ESDC has spent $2.4 billion on the ASETS program.

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But despite the efforts of the government and so many other communities and organizations, Indigenous unemployment remains a huge issue in Canada. Shauna MacKinnon, in her book Decolonizing Unemployment: Aboriginal Inclusion in Canada’s Labour Market (2015) gives a few reasons why. In her view, the typical programs available in Canada are too focused on short-term solutions which try to place Indigenous people in a job – any job – as quick as possible. Training dollars are used to train individuals to give them the skills they need to match with locally available jobs.

But as MacKinnon points out, these programs don’t always suit the needs of Indigenous peoples who often face multiple barriers. Unemployment (exclusion) is not simply the result of a lack of training, but perhaps due to substantial home responsibilities, living in remote and economically depressed regions, lack of transportation, racism and/or discrimination, criminal records, lack of confidence, among others. It isn’t all about training.

Not only that, but these typical training programs often push Indigenous peoples to train for jobs in the lowest rung of the economic ladder – precarious positions with little financial reward or with little or no opportunities for life-long learning and advancement. MacKinnon calls for a more comprehensive approach to training which includes job creation strategies, child and social supports, passive income supports, and profitable and rewarding placement opportunities. Only then, she argues, can the structural issues facing Indigenous job-seekers be properly addressed.

This is not to say that traditional training programs are always wrong, but that sometimes organizations must think critically about the long-term success of their clients. This might mean more in-class supports and post-training supports, subsidies for child care and transportation, and life coaching. Another solution may also be job creation schemes which provide rewarding employment opportunities that offer opportunities for advancement. Initiatives like these aren’t always easy when funding and timelines are tight, but they might be necessary if we are to tackle these large problems.

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Tyler Foley is a Research Specialist at JEDI and will be a regular contributor to the JEDI blog. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Political Science at Carleton University. Prior to working with JEDI he spent several years working with International humanitarian and development organizations. He is from Oromocto, NB.