Media coverage of problems on reserves tends to obscure the fact that many aboriginal people now live off-reserve. Manitoba is the most striking example: 40% of Manitoba aboriginals live off-reserve; native people account for more than 10% of Winnipeg's population. In the last 20 years, aboriginal migration from the reserve to the city has created a large, underemployed labour pool. Many policymakers see this as a potential crisis, but it's also an opportunity. In recent years, a Vancouver-based non-profit agency called ACCESS (Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society) has been training people to fill the pressing demand for workers in construction, food service and other industries.
With funding from Ottawa, ACCESS was launched in 1999 to help people make the transition from the reserve to the city. "We started out with two employees in Vancouver's downtown Aboriginal Friendship Centre," says CEO John Webster, a member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. "Now we've got 40 full-time staff and we're putting thousands of people to work."
Most clients are in bad shape when they show up at one of the six ACCESS offices in Greater Vancouver. "Often they're homeless or couch-surfing," says Webster. "They've heard about us and they come in for advice. We look at their needs and make a plan. Maybe they need help finding a place to live. If they have drug or alcohol issues, we get them into treatment. If they need basic training, we get them into an eight-week classroom program that teaches essential skills for work, learning and everyday life. Mathematics is an important skill. You can't work at a supermarket or go into an apprenticeship program if you can't handle numbers."
Once clients graduate from the program, they can go into a construction job or an apprenticeship program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. ACCESS director Lynn White says staffers provide round-the-clock assistance that pays off with exceptional results. Over all, only about half of college apprenticeship programs are completed, she notes. "But our aboriginal students rarely fail. We partner with 200 companies, and right now we have 400 aboriginal clients who are either in the workforce or ready to go to work. Thousands of our graduates have gone on to work in the construction industry, the food retail sector, the police service and many other professions. Employers are always calling us."
One of ACCESS's programs is Bladerunners, an employment agency based in the notorious Downtown Eastside. The sidewalk in front of the Bladerunners office at Main and Hastings is a gauntlet of tough-looking vagrants and passed-out drunks, but anyone entering has a good chance of improving prospects. Most of the participants in the Bladerunners program are young, aboriginal and statistically "at risk" of drifting into
a life of unemployment and crime. But about 80% of its graduates end up with a place to live and a steady job.
Garry Jobin, a program co-ordinator at Bladerunners, is a straight-talking aboriginal activist with the zealous energy of a Dr. Oz. He says he has lived in the troubled Downtown Eastside for 20 years because "it's an inspiring place." He keeps his cellphone turned on for his clients 24 hours a day. "Most of my clients are young men. We get them mostly into construction work, and we provide wraparound support, with housing, emotional encouragement, tools and bus tickets, and whatever else they need to get on their feet. The foreman will call me if there's a problem, and I don't put up with any bullshit."
Jobin says most of his clients just need a chance. "Once they get a break, they're off and running....I think the biggest payoff for the kids is the sense of accomplishment. One day there's a hole in the ground, a few months later there's a big building. They can walk by with their friends and say, 'See that building? I built that.'"