The announcement on August 5th of 2009 by Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney following the conclusion of an agreement to attract skilled immigrants to the North West Territories was a masterpiece of bad timing and perverse priorities.
Once again, foreign labour is being courted to fill labour shortages that have never been duly inventoried in an environment where a vast pool of untapped local homegrown Canadian talent begs for opportunities and educational funding for skills development. Kenny’s announcement echoed the infamous proposal by the “Canadian” Dehau International Mine Group to import 400 full-time Chinese workers to develop an underground coal mine near Chetwynd, BC, in the orbit of three native reserves. But at least the Dehau plan was contrived in the context of a boom economy where local unemployment was but 20% of its present level and competition for available labour was fierce.
Kenny’s program to entice migrant labour, on the other hand, is being introduced in the teeth of a severe recession and the prospect of rising oil prices that could smother a recovery. More importantly, though, it is a traditional development strategy that comes on the heels of the leadership contest to elect the new Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and which flagrantly ignores the advice of the leading contenders. Both leading candidates expressed understandable frustration and outrage at Ottawa’s fixation on immigration as the magical solution to our economic woes and its favouritism toward foreign labour sources at the expense of native employment opportunities.
The newly elected Chief of the AFN, Shawn Atleo, explained that 54% of aboriginal citizens were born after 1984 and that Canada needs to embrace this tsunami of youth by supporting them with education and training and creating jobs for them in their own communities. Aboriginal youth are in dire need of hope and opportunity, a sentiment seconded by his rivals, who mentioned that 60% of natives lived as “urban Indians” because too many reserves offer “no jobs, no housing and no clean water.” While federal politicians fall over themselves on the campaign trail complaining that immigrants with foreign credentials can’t find work in their field, some 10,000 First Nations youth eager to be trained for jobs that are in demand can’t get them for lack of educational funding. Meanwhile provinces like New Brunswick and Newfoundland endow immigrant “welcoming centres” with lavish grants.
Atleo said that young human potential already exists in Canada, so “we don’t need to go elsewhere.” His opponent, Perry Bellegarde who narrowly lost the contest, made the same point. “We don’t need to bring in further immigrants to Canada”, but rather, we need to invest in the human capital pool “that is already there”. “If First Nations wins”, he declared, “all of Canada wins.” But the reality is, thanks in large part to immigration, both are losing. Unemployment rates for all Aboriginal peoples, including those in the North West Territories, continue to be at least double the rate of the non-aboriginal population, with so-called “Registered Indians” suffering an unemployment rate of 27%.
No wonder then, that in the “Community Well-Being Index” of 4685 Canadian communities, half of the First Nations communities fell into the lower range of the index as compared with 3% of non-native communities. In fact, 92 of the bottom 100 communities were First Nations. Thus, according to an Indian and Northern Affairs Canada study, the quality of life of First Nations peoples in Canada ranked 63rd in the Human Development Index developed by the UN. Candidates agreed that key to eliminating poverty amongst natives was education and the hope that comes with economic opportunity. Without a preference for native hiring, however, neither education nor hope would suffice. A “Canadians First” hiring policy would obviously be in order.
One could be forgiven for thinking then, that self-appointed “human rights” advocates would concur with Chief Atleo’s statement that “First Nations poverty should be the number one social justice issue in Canada.” Yet federal politicians and labour groups seem to pay more attention to the human rights of refugees to Canada than to the refugees who jump from the fire of hopelessness on native reserves to the frying pan of alienation and despair in Canada’s major cities. Most puzzling is the emphasis that the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) places on “regularizing undocumented workers….whose skills are in need and are contributing to the economy.” Instead of denouncing “the inexcusable lack of humanity” and “zealotry” of the Canadian Border Security Agency in pursuing the deportation of job-stealing illegal immigrants, it might have been more morally cost-effective and righteous for CLC Secretary Treasurer Hassan Yussuf to deploy his energies to redressing ‘the inexcusable lack of humanity’ shown to First Nations people by the government’s immigration policy. For direction, Yusuf might confer with Jim Sinclair, who as President of the BC Federation of Labour in May of 2007, at least protested Dehau’s hiring proposal to bypass local Canadian labour.
The CLC continues to be unimpressed with a Statistics Canada study released at that time which showed that immigration was implicated in a 7% drop in real wages of educated workers from 1980 to 2000. Rather than suggest a tightening of immigration, which by growing the labour pool by 13% since 1990 has weakened labour’s bargaining power, they merely demand that immigrants be informed of their workplace rights. Like the union establishments of the United States and the UK, the CLC has chosen to chase the union dues of potential immigrant recruits at the cost of resident workers who they exclude from primary consideration. The parliamentary arm of the CLC, the NDP, meanwhile, mimics and amplifies the CLC stance. NDP Immigration critic Olivia Chow, reading from the same script as her putative opponents in the Liberal and Conservative caucuses, declared that “We need more immigrants because of our ageing population….We need productivity and growth…”
It cannot be said that First Nations citizens lack the same ambition to find work as other Canadians. In fact, a 2004 study done by the Caledon Institute for Social Policy found that they have similar labour force participation rates. “Put simply”, the study stated, “people of Aboriginal identity are trying to get jobs at almost the same rate as the total population, despite Aboriginals’ high rates of unemployment….this finding implies that the main labour market challenge to the Aboriginal community is not lack of will to work: Rather the challenge is finding jobs.”
In a discussion paper for the Council of the Federation of the AFN entitled “First Nations Role in Canada’s Economy”, the difficulties inherent in the standard obsession with immigration as a solution to the country’s labour force requirements were enumerated. Rather than ‘take their love to town’, governments would do better to love the potential that First Nations Canadians offered right here at home. As the paper pointed out, “First Nations workers are here in Canada already and do not require any immigration process. This is a decreased cost. First Nations citizens generally speak at least one of the official working languages (English or French) fluently; possess Canadian work experience; and possess their credentials from Canadian schools, thus eliminating many of the limitations that face immigrant workers. Most importantly, First Nations citizens have a right to expect that the Government of Canada would favour their employment over the citizens of a foreign country.”
Amen to that! Or translated into a lexicon familiar to those of a Euro-Canadian cultural heritage: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1st Timothy 5:8