Multi-year effort underway to build national picture of Indigenous employment

OTTAWA — A national, multi-pronged, multimillion-dollar effort is underway to figure out how Indigenous Peoples fare in the country’s labour market and fill a data gap that is woefully wide.

In some cases, the lack of data has meant federal officials have allowed businesses in the food and retail sector to hire temporary foreign workers near reserves even though there are Aboriginals who could fill the jobs, owing to the high unemployment rate in those Indigenous communities.

Federal and Indigenous agencies are trying to fill that knowledge gap through a series of surveys and outreach efforts that will take years to complete and cost some $12 million.

Internal government documents point to some conflict between officials about whether efforts are too costly or will yield robust enough data to ensure a new Indigenous jobs strategy reaches more workers and boosts economic outcomes on reserve.

The government expects that over the next decade, about 400,000 young Aboriginals will join the workforce, adding to the almost 900,000 already of working age. At the same time, the Liberals are crafting a new Indigenous employment strategy to guide those workers in the labour market.

But the data needed to craft the strategy is woefully lacking or old.

“There is currently a lack of up-to-date, on-reserve labour market information to support program design, service delivery, and decision-making,” said Matt Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Labour Minister Patty Hajdu. “The census is the only source of labour market information for the on-reserve population and it takes place every five years.”

Pascuzzo said the government would like to see on-reserve labour information updated annually to provide a clearer picture about skills and training needs, employment and education of Indigenous Peoples on reserves.

Statistics Canada, which runs the census, questioned how useful the $12-million program would be, believing that the census and tax filing data would be more than enough to understand the on-reserve labour force.

Hajdu’s officials argued in a briefing note to her earlier this year that Statistics Canada’s methods were sound, but have “proven to be costly.”

“There is a need to take steps towards reducing the gap in on-reserve labour force information,” reads the briefing note, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. “Although the results will not be as robust as that of Statistics Canada’s (monthly labour force survey), the investment of $12 (million) is a start.”

The federal government will spend the money between now and 2022 to for a new jobs survey on reserves, while also working with Statistics Canada to see if Indigenous tax filings can be used to glean important employment details. There are also plans to use information already being held by other departments and levels of governments and work with groups that deliver job programming on and off-reserve.

The First Nations Information Governance Centre plans to roll out a major employment survey next year.

The National Aboriginal Economic Development Board is looking to create a skills inventory for Ontario, mirroring similar pushes in other provinces. Interim board chair Dawn Madahbee Leach said the inventory will help match Indigenous workers, particularly young people, with available jobs to help them get a foot in the labour force.

“Opening those doors is the biggest thing,” she said.

The latest census figures on Indigenous incomes on reserve show that the median employment-related income ranged from over $40,000 annually in three communities to 22 communities with median employment incomes below $10,000.

However, the figures are not a complete picture of what happens on reserve: Many details have been suppressed over privacy concerns by the statistics office, which will provide census data about Indigenous Peoples in Canada later this month.

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