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Manager Leonard Steinhauer works alongside cashier Gabrielle Ermineskin at the Fas Gas in Maskwacis, Alberta on Thursday, November 13, 2014. The Fas Gas is now staffed by all indigenous people. Amber Bracken for the Globe and Mail

AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

The gas station in Ermineskin Cree Nation has undergone a transformation. A new owner has given it a facelift, and the 15-member staff is now all aboriginal, mostly from the four reserves that surround Maskwacis in central Alberta.

At first blush, it seems like a given that a gas bar on a First Nation would employ indigenous people to work the cash register and pump gas, especially in a community where an estimated seven of 10 adults don't have a job.

But that was not the case until Neyaskweyak Group of Companies (NGCI) took over the business in April. Like a cafeteria owner in the Maskwacis Mall, the previous gas-station operator went outside the area's reserves for labour. In fact, the cafeteria's non-aboriginal owner looked all the way overseas, hiring temporary foreign workers with the federal government's blessing, The Globe and Mail recently revealed.

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(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

New data provided to The Globe show Ermineskin Cafeteria was granted approval to hire a dozen foreign employees between 2012 and this year. The owner operates food outlets on the neighbouring Samson reserve as well.

The cafeteria's foreign-hiring practices took both the CEO and chairman of NGCI by surprise. Formed last year with a mandate to improve economic development in Ermineskin and to create more job opportunities for First Nation members, NGCI controls the cafeteria's lease in the Maskwacis Mall.

"I was very shocked at first and appalled, because of the high unemployment in our community," NGCI chairman Trent Blind said of learning about the cafeteria's temporary foreign workers in The Globe. "There is plenty of local labour that just needs some mentoring and … training."

CEO Fahim Haque would not say if NGCI is considering taking over the cafeteria as it did with the gas station and adjoining convenience store.

"NGCI has a right to review all current leases and where necessary to make any changes to benefit the members and economic condition of Ermineskin," Mr. Haque noted.

Formerly known as Hobbema, Maskwacis has struggled with drugs, gang turf wars and violence. Adopting as its name this year the Cree word meaning "bear hills" is part of an effort to improve living standards on the reserves and make a fresh start.

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With a population of about 12,500 in the four First Nations – more than half under 18 – Maskwacis is a young community with many people available to fill jobs on-reserve and in nearby cities, such as Wetaskiwin. More employers should give aboriginal candidates a chance, Mr. Haque said.

The gas station is a case in point. Manager Len Steinhauer said the business employed some indigenous workers under its previous owner, but many of the jobs went to non-aboriginal people – and not because aboriginals did not want the work. Mr. Steinhauer said he receives about a résumé a day from First Nation members seeking work at Ermineskin's Fas Gas location. As a result of NGCI's recruiting and training efforts, the gas station's labour force is entirely aboriginal.

Employees range between 18 and 50 years old and are a mixture of men and women. The starting wage is $12 an hour, above Alberta's $10.20-an-hour minimum pay.

"I believe with these communities, where there is 70- to 80-per-cent unemployment rates, that they [aboriginals] should have first choice of jobs," said Mr. Steinhauer, 47, who is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Edmonton.

Gas-station attendant Zak Wuttunee sees NGCI's takeover of the business as a positive step. A fast-food restaurant may open nearby next year, potentially creating another 25 or so jobs for residents. "There is a bit of hope that we are starting to get on our feet and walking again. It's exactly what the community needs," Mr. Wuttunee said.

Employment at the gas station offers Mr. Wuttunee a chance to work in his community. The 22-year-old has worked in construction and in a fast-food restaurant. He believes the perception among some employers that aboriginal people do not want to work is wrong and outdated. He said an understanding of the challenges facing some aboriginal workers, such as poverty or a lack of transportation, is needed.

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In announcing sweeping changes to the temporary foreign worker program in June, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney noted too many youth and aboriginal people are out of work.

Employers seeking to hire foreigners will now have to show that they reached out to groups traditionally underrepresented in the work force, including First Nations. However, because reserves are part of broader economic regions, employers are not banned from bringing in temporary foreign workers to First Nations with high unemployment.

NGCI chief executive Mr. Haque thinks the government should prohibit businesses from hiring foreign labour in aboriginal communities where unemployment is high. The chairman noted Canada's indigenous population is the fastest-growing segment in Canada.

"That's the future work force and that's where employers like us and others should be looking to engage, recruit and select," Mr. Blind said, "and obviously train and build capacity."

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