There are more than 30 First Nations reserves in northern Saskatchewan, many of which struggle with exceptionally high levels of unemployment. Yet none of the people living on those reserves are reflected in the regional unemployment rate, a key trigger that determines whether employers can apply to bring in temporary foreign workers for low-skill jobs.
This statistical oddity – reserves are not and never have been included in the labour-force survey – skews Canada's true picture of unemployment and throws into question one of the government reforms meant to encourage employers to hire aboriginals and other Canadians before looking overseas. Despite a clamp down on the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, the door to foreign workers remains open on First Nations, as illustrated by a Globe investigation that found a cafeteria owner on an Alberta reserve was granted approval to hire foreign workers even though an estimated 70 per cent of residents don't have a job.
(What is the temporary foreign worker program?Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the presence of TFWs on the Ermineskin Cree Nation is evidence that the regional unemployment rate is too broad a measure. He called for the government to ban TFWs in First Nation communities.
"There's a serious problem when it comes to the labour market information the government is using to determine which employers can and can't get access to the TFW program," Mr. McGowan said. "Jason Kenney has already banned employers from using the TFW program in areas of high unemployment. That ban should include First Nations communities even if those communities are in boom provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan."
In June, Mr. Kenney, the Employment Minister, announced the government would refuse applications for TFWs in low-skill jobs if the regional unemployment rate exceeded 6 per cent. But in some areas, particularly in Western Canada where demand for TFWs is highest, that threshold can be skewed by the fact the unemployment rate ignores aboriginals living on reserve.
In the Prince Albert and northern Saskatchewan economic region, for example, the unemployment rate for 2013 was 5.7 per cent. That's just low enough to meet the government's cutoff. As a result, employers in Prince Albert are still able to hire TFWs for low-skill jobs. A government list obtained by The Globe under access to information laws shows several businesses in Prince Albert, which has a large aboriginal population, employ a high proportion of TFWs. Two restaurant owners in the area who spoke to The Globe recently said they prefer to hire TFWs because they consider them more reliable than Canadian workers.
But if reserves were included in the calculations, it's clear the unemployment rate for the region would be much higher than 6 per cent. The 2006 long-form census data, which offers some of the only reliable data on joblessness on reserves, shows nearly 2,600 people living on 35 area First Nations declared themselves unemployed. The average unemployment rate on those reserves was nearly 30 per cent. In a region where roughly 100,000 people are employed, adding on-reserve First Nations to the equation would increase the jobless rate by at least two percentage points, well into high unemployment territory.
"The temporary foreign worker program, because it uses the EI regional unemployment rate, completely ignores aboriginals living on reserves. It's as if they don't exist," said Arthur Sweetman, an economist and policy expert at McMaster University. "There's been a large discussion about bringing certain groups who are less represented into the labour force, aboriginals being high on that list … So this not only goes against [the Employment Department's] policies, it goes against the broader government policies."
The Globe revealed last week that a non-aboriginal cafeteria owner on the Ermineskin Cree Nation and Samson Cree Nation in central Alberta employs TFWs even though local unemployment is very high. The reserve is considered part of the Edmonton economic region for the TFW program. The region's 4.8-per-cent unemployment rate in 2013 is below the 6-per-cent threshold.
The federal Employment Department said it does not prohibit requests for foreign workers from employers on reserves.
Employment spokesman Pierre Nolet said recent reforms to the TFW program will mean employers "will need to meet significantly more rigorous criteria should they want to access" the program again.
The government's reforms also step up pressure on employers to reach out to organizations serving groups traditionally underrepresented in the work force. Business owners must now show that their recruitment efforts targeted these groups, including First Nations reserves, when applying for foreign workers.
Some aboriginal leaders have expressed frustration with the way employers have turned to the TFW program rather than investing in the local work force. Despite the economic boom in Canada's western provinces, many aboriginal communities continue to suffer unemployment rates much higher than the general population.
A little less than half of Canada's First Nations population live on reserves. Labour force survey statistics have never been collected there due to difficulties gathering data, according to StatsCan.