Tapping into a ‘new’ workforce

by John Curran

WINNIPEG, Man. – With Manitoba suffering through its lowest rate of population growth since 1980, the friendly province is certainly at the apex of a skills shortage threatening all transport related firms.

Whether it’s trailer mechanics, truck drivers or train conductors, the problem is the same: where can you find the workers you need to fuel your business when the province itself is barely growing?

If you listen to John Kim Bell, founder and president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, the push to open borders to fill skilled positions with workers from abroad is a mistake.

“About 400 years ago, our people enacted a very liberal immigration policy,” he jokes, “and it turned out to be a huge mistake.”

Bell, who was the first aboriginal person to conduct a symphony orchestra, has dedicated his more recent life to promoting the hiring and training of his people.

He stresses ideas like self-government aren’t sustainable without enterprise and employment, thus the escape from government as the primary source of support must be the top priority.

The benefits of hiring aboriginals, however, extend far beyond the native community.

For business, they represent the largest growing population sector with estimates of 400,000 working age aboriginals expected to live in Canada within five years. For society in general, he says the cost of doing nothing will only increase exponentially when you consider the impact to health care or crime.

“My stated purpose is to create a middle class just like Black America in the ’60s,” insists Bell. Something he says is unlikely given the current funding model used by government.

Thanks to a 70 per cent school dropout rate, aboriginals between ages 25 to 45 are often illiterate. He complains this means of the approximately $300 million spent on training by the federal government, most goes towards basic reading and little is left for any kind of post-secondary schooling.

“Their ability to gain the highly specialized skills,” demanded by today’s employers is hampered he insists. Until people stop settling for six-week training courses to become beauticians he feels the cycle will never be broken.

Bell maintains the time is right for the aboriginal population to become more integrated with the rest of Canada.

“Globalization has led to a business community that is much more tolerant,” he explains. “Twenty years ago … we were completely invisible.” He also stresses rules that appear to give aboriginal communities advantages are often more of a hindrance. There is generally little to no employment on a reserve since the band could simply nationalize and take over any factory located on its territory.

“So there is no incentive to put a factory on a reservation,” says Bell. “We need to change the Indian Act.”

Perhaps then more trucking companies would be able to work with native communities to capitalize on the inherent advantages of hiring aboriginal truckers and owner/operators. When it comes to buying fuel and crossing borders, a status card would certainly be a plus for any trucking operation.

But Bell wants to see a major shift in his people’s thinking, too.

“Having been excluded for so long our unstated function is to grow up to be aboriginal,” he complains. “I was born aboriginal, I grew up to be a conductor.”

He says the only way to change the predominant mindset is to start young.

“We need to raise the standards in aboriginal schools,” says Bell. Math and sciences must receive a higher priority, as well as parenting.

It is impossible to provide a child with a nurturing environment when you’re in and out of additional counseling, he complains.

Having spent most of his life in Thompson the provincial Minister of Transport, Steve Ashton, says Manitoba’s large, and relatively young, aboriginal population gives the province a huge potential advantage in facing any skills shortage.

Given the importance of transportation to the regional economy – it’s currently at six per cent, while agriculture and mining represent 3.5 and three per cent respectively – the minister says transportation must lead the way in any policy of greater inclusion.

“Part of the challenge is to get to all young people when they’re making those critical career decisions,” says Ashton. “Those decisions are made in grade 11 and 12.”

He stresses the province, and in fact all of Canada, needs to recapture the sense that it can do anything that was prevalent in the late ’60s.

“There must be one major difference,” he concludes. “Greater inclusion of the aboriginal population.”

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