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Kevin Chief, a former cabinet minister and popular New Democrat, is seen in his Point Douglas constituency, in a Dec. 14, 2016, file photo.Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

When Kevin Chief finished his university degree, he wasn’t sure how to land his first real job.

The vice-president of the Business Council of Manitoba and former NDP cabinet minister, who grew up in Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhood, saw the barriers many of his Indigenous friends faced.

Chief’s basketball skills got him through university, but he didn’t have connections that could get him hired. When he walked through the doors of the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resources Development, everything changed.

The centre connected Chief to an employment counsellor, prepared him for interviews and helped him build a resume.

“I wasn’t going to do very good in a job interview because I hadn’t done any,” Chief said.

Most importantly, Chief said he finally had the confidence to pursue his dreams.

A new report looking at employment and skills outcomes in Canada by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows Indigenous people still face numerous barriers. But that changes when there are Indigenous-led programs like the one that opened doors for Chief.

The report found Indigenous people are more likely to be in lower paying jobs such as teaching, retail or social work. While more than 25 per cent of the Indigenous labour force work in sales and service occupations, they are significantly under-represented in management, business and finance.

Across Canada, the unemployment rate of Indigenous people is well above non-Indigenous people. The report said gaps in labour market participation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is particularly high in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Contributing factors include lower graduation rates, less access to skills training, as well as insecure child care and housing. But even when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have the same level of education, the report said they do not experience the same success.

Marileen Bartlett, executive director of the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resources Development, said investing in Indigenous people is investing in the future.

An estimated 350,000 Indigenous youth will turn 15 between 2016 and 2026 – something the OECD called an unprecedented opportunity to fill crucial labour shortages in Canada.

The Manitoba employment centre has grown and changed a lot since it began in 1974 depending on what the job market and their clients need, Bartlett said. Sometimes a client needs a bit more education and training. Other times, they may have a good job opportunity but can’t get child care. Many clients need both.

“We are always looking out at the work force to see where we can get our people decent jobs and a living wage,” she said.

“If we want to have that Indigenous middle class, we have to help people to continue to move up the ladder in their education and training so they continue to have better opportunities for themselves.”

The report highlighted the Manitoba centre and three other Indigenous-run centres across Canada, stressing the importance of having staff who are Indigenous.

“This is critical in building trust with potential Indigenous job seekers, who often seek life skills coaching and counselling as well as other pre-employment supports to ensure that they can remain in employment once they have successfully found a job,” the report said.

The OECD made eight recommendations for the federal government including providing more autonomy to Indigenous communities to manage their labour market and supporting targeted work-experience programs.

Ottawa is currently developing a new Indigenous skills and employment training program for next April which it has promised will get more than $400-million per year to close employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Josh Bueckert, a federal government spokesman, said it is consistent with the OECD recommendations and was developed with Indigenous partners.

Bartlett said she is optimistic about the government’s new program, especially since it will allow the Manitoba centre to work with younger children. It also appears to remove some red tape.

She also hopes it will expand the centre’s flexibility to build partnerships with the local business community.

It’s been a long time since Chief first walked through the centre’s doors, but now he connects some of Manitoba’s top employers with the organization that helped him start his career.

“If you have the youngest and fastest growing demographic, there is no question we should have the fastest growing middle class here,” he said.

“You need good public policy. You need good programs and services and you need really good partnerships with the private sector.”

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