As mining and resource extraction companies across the North continue to ride out a worldwide slump in commodity prices, there are several things that Matawa and other remote First Nations close to large mineral deposits in Ontario could be doing to maximize the benefits that will eventually come their way once mining operations begin in earnest.

Considerable attention has been paid to the labour market demands of the mining projects in the chromite, nickel and copper mineral belt known as the Ring of Fire. Much less attention has been given to developing an employability profile of the residents of the nine Matawa First Nations in the area, about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. These residents are expected to supply much of the labour force needed to meet those demands.

Accurate labour force information about remote Indigenous reserves is hard to come by. Although Statistics Canada conducts a monthly labour force survey in provinces and territories across the country, it does not include on-reserve Indigenous populations. Much of the information that is available from other sources is outdated, unreliable or anecdotal. Certainly there are challenges in collecting labour force data on reserves, particularly in remote areas of the North. Travel is expensive, it can be difficult to recruit and train local people in data collection, respondents are frequently difficult to contact, and so on. Real as they are, however, such considerations should not discourage First Nations from conducting their own labour force surveys and collecting their own data — particularly if they hope to take full advantage of the employment and business opportunities that will come their way once the mining sector rebounds and mining operations across the North start up again.

Our experience at Cree Human Resources Development, helping train members of the James Bay Cree First Nation for mining jobs, suggests that two things are particularly important for communities to do in this regard. First, set up a skills, education and work experience inventory of your working-age reserve residents. The more up-to-date and accurate information you can gather now about your labour force, the better your chances of tapping into training and employment opportunities in the future. Many mining jobs in the Ring of Fire will require formal education and/or vocational training. However, many provincially recognized training programs have academic prerequisites, frequently Grade 10 or 11 math or English. What that means in practice is that not everybody who wants to enrol in, say, an underground mining training program will be able to do so. But to know that for sure — and to be able to take steps to address it while you still have time — you need the information. And the sooner the better. When you are told in a year or 18 months that there are half a dozen jobs for underground miners at a local mine if you can get people trained and work-ready in six months, it will be too late. Without enough lead time, opportunities that may not come again will be missed. Start now.

Second, it can save a lot of time if you carry out a preliminary assessment of the basic workplace skills of your working-age residents. Experience has shown us that the most successful training programs are the ones that tailor their technical training as much as possible to the skill strengths and weaknesses of their participants. And to do that, you need to know your participants and what kind of basic literacy and numeracy skills they possess. A variety of assessment tools are available to do this, many of them online. Assessment scores will give individuals a realistic snapshot of where they stand in relation to the real workplace skills that are needed on the job. And, perhaps more important, assessments will show them the skills “gaps” between where they are now and where they need to be to fulfill the requirements of the mining jobs they are interested in. If you start now, they will have time to improve their skills and narrow or even close those gaps.

Indigenous communities, like non-Indigenous communities, are diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all program template for training. A program that works well with one community in one part of the province or country cannot simply be replicated, taken out of the box and set up elsewhere with another community. But with up-to-date labour force information collected and workplace skills assessment data at hand, the people who design the training programs and work with Indigenous communities will have a solid foundation to build on when the opportunities arise. Time devoted to these two tasks between now and then will be time well spent.

Photo: A snowmobile rides down the main street Tuesday, December 18, 2012, on the Fort Hope First Nation, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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