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Surveying remote areas, such as the Kahkewistahaw First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, poses a logistical challenge.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The head of Statistics Canada says it would be costly and difficult to collect monthly labour statistics on First Nations reserves – but that it's "entirely possible" to collect the data on an annual basis, provided there's government will and enough funding.

Canada does not collect monthly statistics on First Nations reserves as part of its labour force survey, an omission Statscan says is largely due to high costs of gathering data from remote areas. This means about half of the country's First Nations population does not show up in the data, making it difficult to determine jobless rates or the effectiveness of various government programs.

That statistical gap is unlikely to change any time soon. The country's labour force survey is intended to give a "quick, accurate and timely measure" of job market conditions – while gathered at an affordable price, said Wayne Smith, chief statistician of Statistics Canada in a Feb. 23 interview in Ottawa.

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It would prove difficult to sample all reserves on a monthly basis, he said.

"You cannot modify the labour force survey to generate estimates for all reserves in Canada, monthly," Mr. Smith said. The task is too huge, the costs are too large and the complications are too enormous for us to be able to do that."

For now, labour market data on one of Canada's fastest-growing populations (with one of the highest rates of joblessness) comes only every five years, in what used to be the long-form census and is now called the national household survey. Some experts say that information is unreliable because the NHS is a voluntary survey.

But Mr. Smith said the agency's canvassers visited every household on reserves for the NHS in 2011 in which it was granted permission or was able to due to weather conditions, rather than conducting a sample, making it a "a very comprehensive view of labour market conditions on reserve." It also sent in-person canvassers to Inuit communities. In the 2011 survey, 36 First Nations reserves and settlements didn't participate or were incompletely enumerated, compared with 22 in the 2006 census.

The jobless rate for the working-age on-reserve status Indian population, at 22 per cent, was nearly quadruple the rate for other Canadians, the NHS showed.

If once every five years isn't enough, however, Mr. Smith said it is "entirely possible" to collect information on a more frequent basis. It's just a question of funding – and whether any government department deems this a priority.

"It comes down to the people who are trying to address this need to make a recommendation that this survey should be done more frequently than just the time of the census. And that being the case, then it's possible. But Statscan couldn't undertake a survey that large with its existing resources," he said.

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"Really, it's the people who – the policy-makers and the decision makers who need the data – if they really believe they need it on a more frequent basis than provided from the census, they need to articulate that, win the support of the government and we need the access to the resources necessary to do it. It's entirely doable. And I'm not diminishing the importance of the problem … if I could solve it with a minor investment of my own, I would, but going to a monthly basis, we're talking in the $10-million range, plus. It might make more sense to go quarterly or annually."

Better labour market information about Aboriginal people, particularly on reserves, is "particularly important," and should be a high priority, noted a 2009 federal labour market panel chaired by economist Don Drummond. It urged Statscan to develop a plan, backed by the federal government, to carry out the labour force survey on reserves.

Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of the Aboriginal Human Resource Council, said more accurate, current and comparable labour market data on reserves would help plan skills training and educational priorities, and better calculate long-term employment projections. He would like to see this data produced at least every two years.

"Given the speed of change in labour markets, in skills training and technological change, there is a need for more and better information."

A lack of data makes it more difficult to assess the effectiveness of government programs such as job retraining or skills development on reserves. It also means these communities aren't included in regional unemployment numbers. Seemingly low regional jobless rates have allowed some employers to bring in temporary foreign workers despite operating in or near areas of high First Nations joblessness.

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