Skip to main content

Business owner Angela Roan pictured near her home on the Ermineskin reserve, Alberta, October 6, 2014. Roan started Atoskewin Transport a year ago to shuttle aboriginal people from her community to jobs off-reserve. She thinks the owner of a local cafeteria in Maskwacis should be hiring locally rather than using temporary foreign workers.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

At the centre of an Alberta mall catering to four First Nations grappling with massive unemployment is a cafeteria that dishes out burgers, fries and bannock – cooked and served by temporary foreign workers.

The exact number of foreigners employed by Ermineskin Cafeteria's owner, Howard Ng, is unclear. Mr. Ng, who is not aboriginal, did not respond to repeated interview requests relayed to him through phone messages, e-mails and a couriered letter to his corporate registration address in Edmonton.

His cafeteria in Ermineskin Cree Nation is in the red-brick Maskwacis Mall, a hub for about 12,500 people. The mall has an employment centre, which estimated that seven of 10 aboriginal adults in the four First Nations didn't have a job in 2009.

According to interviews with several residents and property management officials, few of Mr. Ng's workers in Maskwacis Mall – or in his cafeteria in the Samson Cree Nation admin building or his Chinese restaurant in the Samson Mall – are aboriginal. A federal government document, obtained by The Globe and Mail through access-to-information legislation, states Ermineskin Cafeteria requested four temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 2013 and had two foreigners on staff, making up at least one-third of the work force. A staffer at his Maskwacis Mall cafeteria confirmed at least two TFWs work at that location.

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

Mr. Ng's reliance on TFWs is a gnawing frustration for some residents who contend he should be turning to the local aboriginal community for employees and Ottawa shouldn't be allowing foreign workers in areas of high unemployment.

The federal government appears to be undermining its own efforts to bolster aboriginal employment. As the Employment Department approved Mr. Ng's requests for TFWs, other branches of government poured public dollars into job training, career fairs and mentoring programs in Maskwacis, formerly known as Hobbema.

"Why would they bring in cheap labour, when we have a community of over … 12,000 people within the four Nations?" said Allister Northwest, who works in economic development for the Samson band and organizes an annual career fair. "There's not enough jobs to go around on the reservation."

Ermineskin member Angela Roan echoed these concerns. "The unemployment rate is so high, and then we offer outside people to come in and make money on our reserve and then not hire our own band members. It really frustrates me," said Ms. Roan, who started a business last year to shuttle residents to off-reserve jobs.

The Globe asked Employment and Social Development Canada why it approved Ermineskin Cafeteria's requests for foreign workers, but the department did not answer the question. Spokesman Jordan Sinclair noted the department considers labour market information and efforts made by employers to recruit and train Canadians before deciding whether to allow business owners to hire foreigners.

The TFW program has ballooned since 2002. Nearly 222,000 foreigners were allowed into Canada to work temporarily last year, a figure that has doubled since 2002.

Meanwhile, jobless rates among youth and aboriginal people remain high. Unemployment among aboriginals is more than twice the rate for non-aboriginals, the 2011 National Household Survey showed.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has urged business owners to tap these underemployed groups. New restrictions, including limiting foreign workers to 10 per cent of a company's work force in low-paying jobs and prohibiting them in regions of high unemployment, are expected to reduce low-skilled TFWs throughout Canada.

"I do think that the changes are helpful and are good for First Nations people because it's going to make employers have to look a little harder [for workers]," said Heather MacTaggart, executive director of Classroom Connections, a non-profit organization that supports programs that foster aboriginal entrepreneurship. "Those type of service jobs are really important as a skill building."

Leiha Crier, who grew up on the Samson reserve and teaches entrepreneurship skills, believes employers need to change their perceptions about aboriginal people and aboriginal people need to do a better job of marketing their skills.

"We are an untapped resource," Ms. Crier said. "In terms of employment, things are really changing. The mentality is changing. People are wanting to work."

Although government reforms will limit the use of TFWs in food, retail and accommodation positions in Maskwacis, they won't prohibit their employment. Despite the reserves' urgent job needs, the area is considered part of the Edmonton economic region, where unemployment was 4.8 per cent in 2013 – below Ottawa's six-per-cent threshold for banning low-skilled TFWs.

Maskwacis isn't the only job-challenged community where employers have turned outside Canada for workers. Several business owners in Prince Albert, Sask., a city with one of the highest proportions of aboriginal people in Canada, have relied on the TFW program to fill low-paying jobs.

Sarah Culbert, owner of a Chicken Chef restaurant in Prince Albert, employs four foreign workers – about one-third of her work force – and has done so for the past four years. She said the workers give her stability.

"Training is so costly. There's people that want to work, but the locals don't stay. They stay maybe two months," Ms. Culbert said, noting she has hired aboriginal workers in the past. "In restaurants, you don't make big profits and if there's waste or mistakes then you don't profit at all."

Ms. Culbert said the government's changes to the TFW program will have a major impact on her business. She plans to stop using TFWs, she said, because the $1,000 application fee is too costly.

Robert Dunn owns Humpty's, a quick-service restaurant in Prince Albert. A year ago he had a high proportion of TFWs, but the figure is lower now as some have left and some have become permanent residents. He said foreign workers are prized for their reliability and steadiness on the job.

"I've got a big stack of resumes. The catch is you can't find employees who want to work and stick around more than three months," he said. "The new generation, they just don't want to work. I don't know what it is."

The newly elected chiefs of Ermineskin and Samson were not available to comment. Both reserves have efforts to grow businesses and jobs for residents.

Mr. Ng has operated the Ermineskin Cafeteria since the mid-1990s. He leases space for his food outlets from property management companies in Ermineskin and Samson.

Samson band councillor Patrick Buffalo said Mr. Ng is a good man. "He's easy to communicate with, easy to get along with," he noted, stressing he is not speaking on behalf of the band.

Mr. Buffalo said residents shouldn't rely on Mr. Ng to create jobs for the community. Mr. Ng, he added, is entitled to hire whomever he wishes.

"He's got his own business and he's got his own corporate veil, and what's beyond the corporate veil is his business."