Workfare can do for First Nations what it did for Mike Harris’ Ontario

Posted on June 9, 2012 in Debates

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Jun 7, 2012.   John Ivison

Workfare has an image problem. It conjures up Dickensian visions of young people being forced down mines. No wonder native leaders in southern Ontario and the Maritimes expressed their concern to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo this week, after the National Post reported that the Harper government is keen to usher in a cultural shift to prevent young aboriginals from graduating from high school to welfare rolls.

In provinces like Saskatchewan, where the unemployment rate is 4.9%, 48.1% of native on reserve are on income assistance. The government is quiet on exactly what is being planned but sources suggest that young First Nation band members will in future have to commit to undertake training in return for a welfare cheque.

The roll-out of such a program is likely to face resistance from First Nations, unless they can be persuaded workfare works.

Mr. Atleo said First Nations have to be be involved in any new attempts to break the welfare cycle. “Unilateral approaches to assistance and training policies have often failed and resulted in more harm and cost ….. Training opportunities must be targeted and sustainable and driven by the people they’re intended to help,” he said.

Conservative-haters across the country will whip themselves into a lather at the suggestion, but the introduction of workfare in Ontario by Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government was an example of a program that achieved its policy objective of lowering welfare rolls.

Jim Flaherty, the Finance Minister, has inflamed the left by claiming that there is “no bad job.” One of the Toronto Star’s more unglued columnists called him “sadistic.” But the Harris government of which he was part started from the premise that a job is better than no job. Opponents claim workfare boosted the ranks of the working poor – people left welfare to find employment in low earning and insecure jobs. But even they do not dispute that welfare rolls fell by more than half a million people after 1995. The Harris government was indeed fortunate that the introduction of the policy coincided with the end of the recession. Nevertheless, it achieved its policy goal.

Janet Ecker was Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services at the time and recalls a young single mother who approached her at an event and said getting into her job as a painter had changed her life. “Her two little girls were able to say: ‘Mommy’s going to work’ and that made her feel very proud,” she said.

Ms. Ecker acknowledges that the economy was growing at the time. “But my recollection is that both tighter eligibility rules and being more active about helping people get into jobs had an impact.”

Given that Mr. Flaherty, Foreign Minister John Baird and Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement all sat around the Harris government’s Cabinet table, it should come as no surprise that the policy is being dusted off.

It’s clear that the new policy cannot be simply transferred wholesale to First Nations. One aboriginal skills trainer said that in her school district near Kamloops there are 2,000 native students, and 36 out of 100 of them leave before completing Grade 12. Since most trades require at least Grade 12 science, math or English, this means a significant upgrade just to get into the labour market.

The new policy stems from a 2009 evaluation of the government’s native income assistance program, which found a dependency ratio rate of 36% on reserve in 2005/6, compared to a national rate of 5.5%. The government spent $742-million on income assistance, benefiting 160,000 people. By comparison, only 60,000 aboriginal people enroll in government training programs in any given year.

‘Society has an obligation to help you when you need help, but you have an obligation to use that help to get back on your feet’

Yet even at that level of funding, the program was failing to meet the basic needs of recipients, in part because of an annual 2% cap on funding and massive population increases on reserve. The report said income assistance is essentially a passive service and only 2% of spending addressed educational and training needs or provided support to parents such as child care or transportation.

To turn around that situation will require some imaginative policy solutions, perhaps adopting what is already working. In Nova Scotia, for example, income assistance clients are able to remain on social assistance while they are in training. Elsewhere, pilot projects have been launched, such as the Active Measures program in Saskatchewan – a tripartite agreement between Ottawa, the province and First Nations, which aims to get people off income support by providing better access to career planning, literacy programs and training allowances.

Active Measures has not proven to be a panacea but local chiefs say they have seen buy-in from local companies and welfare rolls have dipped slightly.

First Nations have their own complex and unique sets of problems. But Ms. Ecker hit on a truth that is universal in all circumstances: “Society has an obligation to help you when you need help, but you have an obligation to use that help to get back on your feet.”

This is one of the most important public policy dilemmas facing Canada – how to marry a large pool of young, relatively unskilled natives with the country’s growing labour shortages A more active federal role should be welcomed and encouraged.

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