Business and aboriginal communities forge new frontiers

One of the greatest untapped sources of skilled labour in this country, and certainly in western Canada, is the aboriginal population.

It is also a talent pool of entrepreneurs. Historically, the Cree were known for their trading skills and in today's world would be regarded as business leaders.

Canada's shortage of skilled workers is made more critical by the fact that the Canada faces its lowest birth rate on record. At the same time, the aboriginal population is one of the fastest growing in the country, with a birth rate one and a half times that of non-Aboriginal people. And with 25 the median age of Canadian aboriginals, it's a young population, compared to the non-aboriginal median age of 38.

Consider the growing need for skilled talent. In Alberta alone, the value of major projects has reached a landmark total of more than $156 billion. This is not unique in the Prairies; British Columbia forecasts 130,000 person years of work leading to 2010. The combined estimated total for major projects in Alberta and British Columbia is more than $275 billion.

Alberta's aboriginal population is growing at three times the national rate. By 2012, Edmonton will have the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, surpassing Regina and Winnipeg. This demands a vision for the country, in particular the West-which has the highest aboriginal population.

It's time to start working with our Aboriginal Peoples to open doors, create access, and develop new strategies to allow them to participate. We must ensure our aboriginal youth have career opportunities, not just jobs on the frontline. Training needs to be any time, anywhere and linked to the needs of the communities and settlements, urban and rural, southern and northern. We need to find ways to increase aboriginal high school completion rates to meet or beat the national average and convince more students to study math, science, and technology. Next, we need to make our programs relevant, culturally sensitive and nothing short of excellent.

Although the unemployment rate for aboriginal people in western Canada is two and a half times higher than those of non-aboriginal people, education narrows the gap considerably. For post-secondary educated Aboriginal Peoples, the employment rate is 84 per cent compared to only 77 per cent for non-aboriginal people. It's clear that completion of post-secondary education dramatically increases their chance of obtaining employment.

Interestingly, the number of self-employed Aboriginal Peoples in Canada has increased by more than 30 per cent since 1996, a rate nine times higher than for self-employed Canadians overall (3.3 per cent).

EnCana promotes the concept of self-employment by creating Aboriginal business leaders. Andy Popko is vice-president aboriginal affairs and, more importantly, honourary chief of the Heart Lake First Nations. EnCana has strong operating guidelines around getting access for drilling on farmland and in aboriginal communities.

EnCana also creates opportunities, whether it is economic ventures or hiring aboriginal talent or collaborating on training programs, to get the talent they need. It does not stop there: the company has developed an aboriginal-awareness training program for their employees and contractors.

EnCana's corporate social responsibility includes helping launch Western Lakota Drilling, contributing to colleges, universities and technical institutes, and hiring a record number of aboriginal subcontractors. Popko makes sure the company promotes aboriginal partnerships across Canada. He believes that there are huge economic opportunities for corporate Canada if they are interested in understanding aboriginal rights and want to enter a mutual partnership.

For some companies, it's all about hiring and working with Aboriginal Peoples while working on their land. Brian Bertram, owner and manager of Bertram Drilling, has worked on aboriginal land across Canada, in the United States, and offshore in countries like Russia and Trinidad. In fact, his company has been drilling in the Canadian Arctic for years and he is very aware how important it is to have mutually satisfactory working agreements for all parties. Bertram tries to have at least 50 per cent aboriginal workers on their crews. Bertram's priorities include improving communities, sustainability, and working with fantastic people.

Tim Heins, community relations liaison with Flint Energy Services had vast experience working in the Northwest Territories before coming to Flint. He has tried to position the opportunities with the needs of the communities so that each can benefit from realistic expectations. Heins believes that one of the ideal ways to engage aboriginal people is to connect with programs offered in their community, such as NAIT's mobile education units.

Heins believes finding a match between the company and the community all starts with two-way dialogue. Their philosophy is summed up by balancing the needs of the community with developing local and regional relations. Flint has been offering training to get aboriginal workers in the Safety Watch Aboriginal Training Program. His advice is that not everything may appear timely but everything will be done in time if you believe in relationships. He believes a company commitment from the top is important when working with aboriginal communities.

These companies are working with Aboriginal communities by setting a standard when it comes to forging relations and partnerships. In the end, it is about people finding mutual goals and working hard to achieve those goals for their company or their community.

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