Aboriginal ‘workfare’ program getting positive response on reserves, despite vocal critics
NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/06/12. John Ivison
While official Ottawa concerned itself with MPs making inappropriate expense claims at nail salons and the prospects for the Prime Minister’s post-political career in stand-up, the real business of government was happening in Saskatchewan.
Bernard Valcourt, the Aboriginal Affairs minister, was in the province announcing details of the Harper government’s new skills training for on-reserve welfare clients.
The government isn’t keen on calling it workfare, which conjures up visions of kids being shoved up chimneys, but that’s what it is. The unemployment rate in Saskatchewan is 4.4%. That compares to a dependency rate of nearly 50% on reserves.
The government’s solution in the March budget was to allocate $241-million to encourage the fastest growing demographic in Canada – young people between 18-24 years old – to get training at a time of labour shortages in many parts of the country.
The new First Nations Job Fund, worth $109-million over five years, is aimed at offering personalized job training to native youths, whether it’s through upgrading education to Grade 12 levels, providing career planning, granting training allowances, or even giving wage subsidies to encourage employers to hire young natives.
A further $132-million will be provided to First Nations that sign up to create the delivery mechanisms like case worker support and compliance systems.
And there’s the catch for some native leaders. Bands that sign up can access the cash – but young people will have their income assistance cut if they don’t participate in training.
Derek Nepinak, the perennially unhappy Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, called it “coercion and racialized policy implementation” – a sentiment echoed by NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who has called the program “insulting and paternalistic.”
But while the politicians – native and non-native – play their games, those on the ground who see the juxtaposition of native poverty and large economic projects at close quarters have a very different view.
Chief Felix Thomas of the Saskatoon Tribal Council said it is a “positive, practical move that can work.”
“Skills don’t discriminate,” he said. “If you have skills with a hammer, a wrench or a computer, employers don’t care about what race or age or gender you are. We want to make sure our youth have the skills to compete.”
Mr. Valcourt said what he hears from chiefs and parents as he travels the country is very different from what he reads in the newspapers. “There will be many more takers out there for this than people appreciate,” he said.
The minister has been in the job for just four months but clearly grasps the enormity of the problem. His department spends $800-million a year on income assistance for 160,000 people, yet only 60,000 of those people enroll in training programs.
He was a minister in Brian Mulroney’s government when the social safety net was set up on reserves 25 years ago. But he acknowledges that it has turned into a dependency trap and that the only route out is through training and education.
One of the government’s other great native policy initiatives is a First Nations Education Act, which would set common standards for standalone on-reserve schools. But it has been all quiet on the legislative front ever since native leaders walked out of talks, claiming Ottawa was taking a unilateral approach.
Mr. Valcourt said he is going to have another round of consultations with native leaders over the summer on the pending legislation and start drafting the bill in the fall.
‘If you have skills with a hammer, a wrench or a computer, employers don’t care about what race or age or gender you are’
He may have a problem finding leaders who will talk to him. Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has distanced himself from the federal government after being dismissed as Stephen Harper’s puppet by native hardliners like Grand Chief Nepinak. While Mr. Atleo and the AFN meet in Whitehorse in mid-July, Mr. Nepinak and other leaders from treaty nations on the Prairies will gather in Onion Lake, Sask. There is some speculation that he will push for the creation of a National Treaty Alliance – in essence a rival voice to the AFN based on treaty rights.
Mr. Valcourt is philosophical. “I cannot escape Indian politics … But the people I talk to know that we will not be rid of the famous Indian Act overnight. They know taking incremental steps is the way to go.”
On the fifth anniversary of the parliamentary apology for the residential schools system this week, Mr. Atleo issued a call for concrete action from government to build native economies and hope for the future.
The Conservatives may be hanging by a thread in the House of Commons, but on the Prairies they are matching their words with action.
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