Canada’s ignored labour force: challenges and opportunities

By Jack Bourassa, Regional Executive Vice President for the North

As published in the Yellowknifer, July 2016

We would never move. Maybe inland, but never too far, my Inuvialuit friend says, with a firm certainty in her smile. I’m learning from her about environmental issues in Tuktoyaktuk in preparation for the Climate Change Townhall recently held by the federal government in Yellowknife.

Tuktoyaktuk’s shores are eroding and ice freezes later than it used to, shortening the trapping season. Diminishing caribou herds led to hunting quotas and longer travel time for hunters. Gas is expensive, store-bought food is expensive, and unemployment – high.

Tuk’s story is the story of many communities in the North. We face unique challenges in the territories, calling for unique solutions. But we are also presented with opportunities.

Considering its aging workforce and low fertility rates, Canada’s economy is facing labour shortages which are deemed to worsen. The Indigenous population is the fastest-growing population cohort in Canada and could help fill that gap. However, that has yet to happen. Unemployment among Indigenous peoples is significantly higher than that for non-indigenous throughout the North and the rest of the country.

My friend’s story hints to some of the challenges – geographical, cultural, environmental. Research reports produced by the Conference Board of Canada, Centre for the North identify others: low educational attainment, lack of work experience, access to transportation, inexistent or unaffordable daycare, reluctance to leave tight-knit communities, and negative stereotypes encountered in the workplace.

The cultural genocide inflicted on Indigenous populations left scars that will take generations to heal. Youth are often exposed to intense life stressors, and suffer severe health and wellness problems, which in turn impacts their educational performance and engagement. A generation caught between two cultures in search for an identity.

Part of one’s identity is often defined through their employment. Work can provide a sense of belonging, a social life and the satisfaction of doing something well, fostering self-esteem – a key aspect of wellbeing.

In fact, the Centre for the North’s Survey of Northerners’ Outlooks and Wants found that Northerners consider employment opportunities to be the number one way to make their communities better places to live.

So how can we address the challenges faced by Tuktoyaktuk and other communities, and take advantage of the opportunities?

Dedicating necessary resources and attention to education and employability skills, in conjunction with offering wrap-around social supports, has been identified as essential. Recent federal funding provided to Canada’s North is timely and should be used to those ends.

We welcome recent initiatives brought forth by the GNWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) such as Education Renewal and Skills for Success. These aim to create educational opportunities that are culturally appropriate and in-line with the demands of the labour market, as identified in the Northwest Territories Labour Market Forecast and Needs Assessment report.

We also commend ECE’s efforts to consult with communities and Indigenous governments in their planning processes. Promoting better understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures will help address prejudicial attitudes in schools and in the workplace.

Sustainable funding is a must for the above-mentioned initiatives and others that help grow our local workforce; adopt innovative educational delivery models that overcome geographical barriers; and expand educational programming to prepare students for successful employment in a variety of economic sectors, including the green economy.

Sustainable funding is similarly important for other GNWT departments addressing issues of health, safety, homelessness and poverty in general; and for the civil sector that is most often forced to operate under dire financial restraints, while providing crucial services to the most vulnerable.

In terms of economic development, Alternatives North’s Economic Futures in the Sahtu Region discussion paper showed that subsidies for fossil fuel extraction companies do not result in long-term employment for Northern residents. The authors recommend adopting the path of economic gardening. This approach entails supporting locally owned businesses, thus prioritizing sustainable employment in a localized, diverse economy that employs residents with different skills, experience, and interests.

Unions will continue to play their significant role in addressing these issues through educating their members, raising public awareness and strengthening community partnerships.

It is only through respectful dialogue, understanding each other’s needs, and sustainable economic and community development that we will be able to build labour force capacity in Canada’s North.

These are not inexpensive solutions. But inaction is the most expensive of all, not only for the residents of Tuktoyaktuk and other Northern communities, but for all of us Canadians.

Furthermore, as former PM Paul Martin bluntly put it, “improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal youth is more than an economic issue: It is the single most important moral issue that Canada faces”.



NWTTA – Understanding Teacher Workloads (Pan Northern Diary Study)

GNWT Department of Education – Skills for Success:

Conference Board of Canada research reports:

Tom Fryers –  Work, Identity and Health:

Alternatives North – Economic Futures in the Sahtu Region (discussion paper on building a balanced economy)