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Jeanette Jules, former vice-chair of AMTA and also a councillor with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc band, says the program helped her band attain employment with a copper-gold mine near Kamloops.

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

A federally funded program that helped more than 1,000 First Nations people land jobs in British Columbia's mining sector has abruptly closed its doors, saying it was not able to operate without secure financing from Ottawa.

The federal government, however, says the $10-million program – known as the Aboriginal Mentoring and Training Association, or AMTA – filed "questionable expense claims" and was unable to account for some of the money it received before it ceased operations.

The group insists it can account for all the funds it has received and spent.

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The unhappy ending mars what had been a success story for industry, First Nations communities and people such as Meagan Sam.

Ms. Sam, currently working as a contract truck driver at the Gibraltar mine, about 65 kilometres north of Williams Lake, said AMTA counsellors helped her get through training programs, including a stint in the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook.

"They really opened doors for me," Ms. Sam said Friday in an interview. "I maybe could have done it [the training] on my own, but it would have been a lot harder."

Formed in 2009, AMTA was set up to address a skilled-labour shortage and chronic high unemployment rates in First Nations communities, including those near to existing or proposed mines. The program matched jobs to workers and would-be employees to necessary training, ranging from basic math and reading lessons to trades apprenticeships. People in the program had access to coaches and support.

The approach seemed to work. More than 1,000 people got jobs through the program.

And about 2,700 people – more than half of them women – registered for various education, training and development initiatives, AMTA says.

A 2013 review, commissioned by AMTA and prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, found graduates had an average annual income of $53,000 after the program, which is nearly four times the average annual income of $13,754 before entering the program.

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AMTA helped employers meet hiring targets set out in benefit-sharing agreements between First Nations and mining companies, says Jeanette Jules, who was vice-chair of the organization and is also a councillor with the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc band, near Kamloops.

That band, along with the Skeetchestn band, has an impacts and benefits agreement with the owners of the New Afton mine, a copper-gold mine near Kamloops.

"We really wouldn't have been able to attain a lot of that [employment] without AMTA," Ms. Jules said.

On Nov. 3, AMTA announced it was closing its doors "effectively immediately" after failing to secure funding. Under its agreement with Ottawa – $10-million over three years – AMTA had been scheduled to run until the end of March.

It closed earlier than planned after months of wrangling between AMTA and Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal agency that administers the program. At least part of the dispute revolved around a February decision by AMTA – formerly known as the Aboriginal Mine Training Association – to change its name, something the group says it did because other industries were clamouring for its workers.

Ottawa became aware of "certain questionable expense claims" over the past few months and "has not yet received information that demonstrates adequately that the funding was used in accordance with program terms and conditions," an ESDC spokesman said Friday in an e-mail.

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AMTA says it has accounted for all of its spending and that its staff have spent weeks trying to address concerns raised by Ottawa.

"We are confident we have followed through on all our commitments to First Nation communities, companies and the government – and perhaps most importantly, we have met all the standards and requirements of our external auditors," AMTA executive director Laurie Sterritt said Friday in an e-mail.

There are hopes the program can be revived, perhaps with a mix of corporate and provincial funding.

B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond was not available for an interview.

In an e-mail, Ms. Bond said the province is working with AMTA to ensure support for existing clients and that the province appreciates the work AMTA has done to mentor and train First Nations youth.

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