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Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The devil is in the details – and sometimes those details are also hiding an uncomfortable truth or two. Earlier this year, Employment Minister Jason Kenney rightly decided it was time to scale back the low-wage end of the temporary foreign worker program, and in particular to prevent employers in areas of high unemployment from using it. Mr. Kenney aimed to reduce the program so that employers would have to work harder to attract and recruit underemployed groups that have traditionally had trouble getting a foot in the labour force – groups such as native Canadians.

In high unemployment areas, employers will no longer be able to bring in TFWs to flip burgers, pour coffee and otherwise occupy lower-skill jobs. They'll have to turn to the local job market. High unemployment was defined as anything over 6 per cent.

So far, so reasonable. But a look at how Statistics Canada measures joblessness reveals a gigantic blind spot in the data. Most of Western Canada is, according to official statistics, enjoying extremely low unemployment. The official unemployment rate in Manitoba is 5.3 per cent. In Alberta, it's 4.4 per cent. In Saskatchewan, it's 3.5 per cent. And now, the giant caveat: Canada's unemployment figures do not include natives "living on reserves and other Aboriginal settlements in the provinces."

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The Labour Force Survey, Statscan's monthly measure of the job market, doesn't count them. For the purposes of Canada's unemployment figures, they don't exist. A group of people highly likely to be without work are not included in statistics ostensibly measuring exactly that.

For example, the official unemployment rate in the Prince Albert and Northern Saskatchewan region is 5.7 per cent. That's low unemployment according to the new TFW rules, so employers are still allowed to import low-skill temporary foreign workers – and they do. However, many of those TFWs are being brought in to fill positions on or near native communities, which appear to have extremely high levels of joblessness. Back in 2006, the long-form census showed that nearly 30 per cent of people in those Northern Saskatchewan native communities identified themselves as unemployed.

How high is unemployment in the region today? How many of those on-reserve native Canadians are working? How many are looking for work, but unable to find a job? How many have dropped out of the labour force, having given up hope of finding a job? We don't know. Statscan isn't gathering those stats.

The long-standing exclusion of natives on reserves from employment and unemployment figures may have made sense generations ago. Once upon a time, aboriginals were treated as separate from other Canadians, unable to vote or participate in the mainstream life of the country. It's now 2014. Time for a rethink.

Canada, and Western Canada in particular, now has a large and fast-growing native population. Their economic success is essential to Canada's success. The two are inextricably linked. The government of Canada can't make decisions benefiting all Canadians without knowing how all Canadians are faring in the economy.

When Mr. Kenney announced a long-overdue scaling back the temporary foreign worker program, he said that one of the things he aimed to prevent was the creation of a two-tier labour force. He didn't want a future with large numbers of guest workers occupying many entry-level jobs, even as many Canadians were without work, unable to get a foot onto the first rung of the job-market ladder. Mr. Kenney was particularly concerned about young Canadians looking for a first job, and native Canadians in the same boat. He was right to be. Both groups have always faced challenges entering the labour force.

The Minister didn't want to make it too easy for employers to simply bypass Canadians who want to work, but don't yet have skills and experience – experience that can only be acquired by landing that first job. Young Canadians have for the most part traditionally overcome those early difficulties to become successful members of the mainstream work force. That has generally been less true for native Canadians.

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An obscure and long-standing anomaly in statistical methodology ends up shining a light on a very big problem for Canada. The problem goes far beyond the TFW program. Statscan's monthly snapshot of the job market is broken down by province, by region and municipality, by age and by gender. But it doesn't measure how native Canadians living on a reserve are faring. What if it did?

The results – how many adult, on-reserve Canadians do not have a job – would likely shock Canadians. And those figures wouldn't be a one-off study, to be read and forgotten. They would come out, month after month, along with the rest of the labour market data, reminding us of an ongoing national failure. A monthly reminder, clanging like an alarm clock, might just spur Canadians to action.

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