Globe and Mail

Chelsea Barron is a 23-year-old machinist working in British Columbia, but she is also something more: She belongs to a work force that is increasingly important to Canada’s economy – Indigenous people.

“Right out of high school I knew I wanted to get into a trade,” says Ms. Barron, who is a member of the Tsilhqot’in (formerly Chilcotin) First Nation in west-central B.C. “My mother mentored me, I went to BCIT [British Columbia Institute of Technology], and I got my Red Seal,” the nationally recognized certification for her trade. “I’ve been working ever since.”

Her story belies the common stereotype of Indigenous people having trouble getting meaningful, well-paying jobs. But she represents only half the story so far – the other half is of a rapidly growing population that is still overcoming obstacles.

The most recent census data showed that as of last year, 1,673,785 Indigenous people lived in Canada, representing 4.9 per cent of the population. That’s nearly double the percentage of 20 years earlier. The average age of the Indigenous population in 2016 was 32, nearly 10 years younger than the non-Indigenous population.

But the growing cohort hasn’t yet risen to its potential economically. In 2011, Statistics Canada found that the jobless rate for many living on reserves was as high as five times the rate of the general population.

“The connections between the growing Indigenous population and employers aren’t happening fast enough yet,” says Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of Indigenous Works, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to build links between businesses and the aboriginal work force. It encourages non-Indigenous businesses to employ Indigenous people and connect in partnerships with Indigenous businesses.

The current trends among the Indigenous population are “a double-edged sword,” says Jean Paul (J.P.) Gladu, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. “About half our population has moved off reserves and into urban areas. Our people are becoming better trained, better educated and more business-savvy and are looking for opportunities.

“The other edge is that we’re losing some of that capacity in some of our First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities,” Mr. Gladu says. “We need an economy that can attract and maintain that talent base.”

He and others are optimistic that, ultimately, the growing and youthful Indigenous population – and the Canadian economy as a whole – will both benefit.

A new study commissioned by Indigenous Works suggests there’s still quite a long way to go.

The study prepared by R.A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. of Ottawa, is the most comprehensive of its kind, Mr. Lendsay says. It looked at how corporate Canada is connecting, or not connecting, to Indigenous people.

The survey used a “partnership matrix” to determine how businesses across sectors and regions are engaging with the potential Indigenous work force. The results so far: Out of a possible score of 100, corporate Canada scored only 13.

Only about half of businesses – 54 per cent – were aware of local Indigenous groups. Only 39 per cent were aware of the demographic potential of Indigenous communities, the survey concluded.

“Only half of businesses wanted to do more business with Indigenous groups … only one in three businesses considered investing in Indigenous communities a priority,” the survey also noted.

Mr. Lendsay says it would be helpful if companies set targets for hiring qualified Indigenous people, particularly large businesses that have more than 500 employees.

“There are 2,944 large employers in Canada, which generate 39 per cent of employment across the country. If 39 per cent of the Indigenous labour worked for large businesses today – like railways, transportation companies and banks – there would be 255,000 Indigenous people employed.”

This would certainly boost what Statistics Canada calls the group’s “participation rate” in the labour market, which was 74.8 per cent in 2010 – 12 percentage points lower than for the general Canadian labour market.

More training opportunities will help, says Gary McDermott, director of programs for the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS) in Vancouver, which connects Indigenous youth to skills-training programs.

“We work primarily with young people who are out of school,” he says, but ACCESS also reaches people like Ms. Barron, who, as she says, became interested in her career right out of high school.

It’s also important to encourage Indigenous employment that will make a difference to Indigenous communities, says Beverley O’Neil, a citizen of Ktunaxa Nation in Western Canada and head of O’Neil Marketing & Consulting and Numa Communications Ltd.

“Having Indigenous ethnicity is not enough. It’s best to find Indigenous people who are directly connected to and can bestow values and ethics that reflect First Nations,” Ms. O’Neil says. She says she has seen examples of inauthentic individuals or groups who seek to look good by laying claim to an Indigenous connection that is either not real or tenuous, which discourages people who are trying to work for true reconciliation.

Bringing Indigenous people into the work force is only one step, adds Ms. O’Neil. It’s partly about good business, partly about reconciliation and partly about making available the tools and programs so Indigenous people and their communities will be proud. In her view, these are all good reasons to work with and hire Indigenous people – they all lead toward better outcomes for everyone.