There are now many examples of policies introduced by the federal government that will have significant implications for indigenous sovereignty, preservation of language and culture, environmental protection and social and economic inclusion.
Some government actions are explicitly targeted at aboriginal people. Other policies are more broadly focused but have serious implications for those who struggle to overcome the deep damage caused by a long history of colonial policies. The Canada Jobs Grant is one such policy. It will make it more difficult for the most marginalized aboriginal people to access employment training leading to well-paying and sustained employment, because it directs resources away from programs specifically designed with their needs in mind.
While details of how the jobs grant program will work are yet to be fully revealed, the intent is clear. It presents a radical shift in policy by pushing provincial governments aside and giving greater control to the private sector, which the federal government argues knows best what is needed. The federal government will contribute a maximum of $5,000 toward an individual's job specific training costs, but only where similar contributions are made by a private sector employer and matched by provincial/territorial governments.
While employers might know what they need, they do not have a grasp on what aboriginal people need. This was made clear in the 2012 Conference Board of Canada report Understanding the Value, Challenges, and Opportunities of Engaging Métis, Inuit and First Nation Workers.
The aboriginal population in Canada continues to measure poorly against several social and economic indicators including health, education attainment, labour market participation and earnings. This is of particular concern in Manitoba where the aboriginal population is growing at a faster rate than the non-aboriginal population. It has been projected to grow from the current rate of 16.7 per cent to between 18 and 21 per cent by 2031. For this reason alone, education and training that meets the needs of aboriginal people should be a policy priority.
Federal/provincial/territorial labour market agreements (LMAs) are specifically aimed at assisting individuals who do not qualify for employment insurance and who have had weak labour- force attachment. LMAs support innovative programs that have been beneficial to marginalized workers, including those who are aboriginal. In Manitoba there are several community-based organizations currently supported through the Canada-Manitoba LMA that are specifically designed by and for aboriginal people. They know from experience what their trainees need.
Many of their graduates have found meaningful employment and many others have moved on to post-secondary education to pursue careers as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, social workers and so on. As a result of the flexibility that the LMA provides, the province has also used funds to integrate training and employment for aboriginal people into large infrastructure projects, such as northern Manitoba Hydro development and the Red River Floodway expansion.
The gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people remain large, but there has been progress in part because of the creativity LMAs have allowed. The Canada Jobs Grant will limit creativity because the federal government will move 60 per cent of the funds currently allocated to LMAs to the jobs grant. In Manitoba this is about $11 million. The province will then have to find an additional $11 million to match funding through the program, leaving far less available for existing programs.
Interestingly, employers seem not to like the grant program either. This raises questions as to whether they will step up with the one third of funding required to access federal and provincial matching dollars. But even if they do, support through the CJG will be for very short-term training that will be insufficient for many trainees and won't allow for the holistic models that have been shown to be most effective for many aboriginal trainees. Firms will be more inclined to hire and train those most "job-ready," or to focus on training existing employees, an option that is allowed through the jobs grant program.
A shift in resources from the LMA to the program will mean individuals in most need of training will have greater difficulty accessing it, making high-skill and well-paying jobs further from their reach. But with an increasingly polarized labour market and a growing need for workers in low-skill, low-wage jobs, perhaps the preservation of a low-skill pool of labour is the real motivation behind the program.
Shauna MacKinnon is an assistant professor in the urban and inner-city program at the University of Winnipeg and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives research associate.