Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gas stop on the road to economic prosperity

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On a long, hot drive up north this summer, in a car with a good half-inch of Manitoba's finest bugs blasted into the front end, I pulled over for a much-needed cup of coffee and fill-up of gasoline. There, at the Shell-Tim Hortons stop, was Avery Constant, one of my former high school grads.

During the kind of quick catch-up conversations that so often happen between the lineup and the till, Avery really opened my eyes to what may be a significant answer to our country's most pressing economic issue.

It is, according to Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the significant labour shortage that Canada is expected to face by 2016 -- a "jobs and no one to fill them" situation that will be our country's most serious economic challenge in the next 50 years.

On the flip side of the labour shortage coin, and here in our own backyard, Manitoba is burbling with young people not only anxious but nearly desperate for work. How could this be when our unemployment rate is relatively low?

Recent statistics tell the tale of our aboriginal community that is expected to grow from 15 per cent of our provincial population to as high as 25 per cent by 2020.

With virtually 50 per cent currently on social assistance, the solution seems all too obvious. Let's fill the labour shortage by getting these young aboriginal people trained and working.

As I move about Manitoba and across the country, I am often asked if young aboriginal people want to work, if they are willing to be trained, and if their collective goal is to get off social assistance in an effort to be independent and self-sufficient.

I put that question to Avery, rather unfairly on behalf of his generation, and here is why he said he wants to work, and work hard. "I want to make sure I can give my daughter everything she wants without the worry of going hungry or having a roof over her head... to make her life as easy and stress-free as possible."

Avery sounds like every other father I have ever spoken with.

He may not realize it yet, but Avery is doing so much more than working at the Pinesew Energy coffee and gas stop. In fact, he's on the cutting edge of a solution that could play a major role in easing the long-term social and economic challenges facing both Canada and Canada's First Nations.

At this junction of highways 6 and 60, I purchased my gas from the First Nations-owned Shell station and my coffee from the First Nations-owned Tim Hortons (located within the gas station). Both businesses, started as a result of a partnership between Opaskwayak (near The Pas) and Misipawastik (Grand Rapids) Cree Nations, are owned, managed, and 90 per cent staffed by First Nations employees.

To prove the point and the success of this corporate Canada-First Nations partnership, the businesses employ 14 aboriginals while the Shell station, in combo with its sister station in The Pas, boasts one of the top volume of gas sales in all of Western Canada year after year.

Partnerships such as this are nothing new. The Hudson's Bay Co. thrived on a model built around adopting First Nations customs and practices to the benefit and success of all. In dusting off and modernizing this model, the Paskwayak Business Development Corporation says the long-term benefits of creating jobs for northern aboriginal people allows for the sustainability of local economies with far reaching spinoffs for employees and their families.

According to the CEO, employees in this joint venture gain experience in the retail and service industries. This fosters both independence and teamwork required to bring the best service to their customers.

To their credit, the chiefs of both First Nations also understood for every person this partnership employed and took off of social assistance, they were helping shift social and economic paradigms as well as the futures of individuals and their communities.

Business leaders in Manitoba and across Canada have much to learn from partnerships such as the joint venture at the junction of highways 6 and 60 and from employees like Avery. In both cases, opportunity awaits to mentor, grow a business, and help change the economic and social face of Canada and its First Nations people.

It is a model that pointed Canada forward in our early days, and surely it can once again.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 A11

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