The Rise of the Indigenous Workforce

The Enoch Cree Nation borders the provincial capital of Edmonton, and is home to almost 2,600 Indigenous residents.

The Indigenous population in Canada is young and growing fast and is an important part of Alberta’s dynamic future. Several organizations in the province are working to guarantee the future contributions of this important and expanding workforce with programs supporting education, training and skills development.

One such organization is the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (Cando), which focuses on educating, training and certifying economic development officers (EDOs) who work in Indigenous communities. “They’re responsible for the economy in their community, whether that be a First Nation or Inuit hamlet or Métis settlement,” says executive director Ray Wanuch. “We have over 400 Cando-certified EDOs throughout the country, and for every dollar invested in that process, our EDOs are producing $4.10 to Canada’s GDP.”

Partnerships are a big part of Cando’s work, including one with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities called The First Nations — Municipal Community Economic Development Initiative. It involves collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people based on respect, understanding and a shared vision for the future. The program spans three years and involves First Nations and neighbouring municipalities partnering to enhance their relationships and work together on joint economic development strategies, from tourism plans to economic diversification to attracting new investors to their region. The First Nations and municipalities adopt a “stronger together” approach, ultimately improving employment opportunities, external investment and long-term sustainability. “We need everybody at the table,” Wanuch says. “A lot of good things have happened because of the partnerships.”

Photos courtesy of Trade Winds to Success Training Society

The work done by the City of Edmonton and the Enoch Cree is being done under this program, as is work by the Town of Cochrane and the Stoney Nakoda Nations, both of which are west of Calgary. Still, there’s opportunity for many more partnerships to be developed. “There’s 633 First Nations in the country, and we’ve done 17 of them to date. So it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Wanuch says.

Another organization dedicated to building the Indigenous workforce is Rupertsland Institute (RLI),
an affiliate of the Métis Nation of Alberta. Based in Edmonton but with offices across the province, RLI was created in 2010 with a mandate to support education, training and research in the development of a skilled, knowledgeable and self-reliant Métis Nation. It has a 10-year agreement with the federal government to provide employment training programs to Métis in Alberta. It provides funding for post-secondary education, trades training, certificate and diploma programs. It will also customize a training program if the need is there. “If we find there’s a labour market demand in an area, we can build a project to meet that demand,” says Shannon McCarthy, Director of Métis Training to Employment at RLI. She says the institute runs 10 service centres across the province and two mobile centres.

Most recently, RLI has added a program to incentivize small- and medium-sized businesses to hire first-year apprentices, specifically in construction and manufacturing. “We’ve had our first few clients already and they’ve already signed up with an apprentice, so that’s fantastic,” says McCarthy.

Also working to strengthen the Indigenous workforce is Edmonton-based Trade Winds to Success Training Society, which provides First Nation, Métis and Inuit people with an opportunity to receive pre-apprenticeship training and shop experience in virtually every construction trade. “Trying to help Indigenous people get those skills to be successful in the construction trades is really important for them, as well as for the province,” says Joan Isaac, executive director of Trade Winds to Success. “Every construction project, every highway, every kind of infrastructure that happens, we need tradespeople to do those kinds of activities.”

There’s 633 First Nations in the country, and we’ve done 17 of them to date. So it’s just the tip of the iceberg — Ray Wanuch, Executive Director, Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers

Trade Winds’ programs span every step of becoming a certified Alberta journeyperson, from writing entrance exams and gaining hands-on experience to finding work and thriving in the workplace.

It’s an approach that’s working. In 2021-2022, 119 people graduated from the program and 84 per cent
were employed within six months of graduation. By reducing skills and employment gaps and increasing Indigenous participation in the workforce, these initiatives are changing people’s lives, while also strengthening Alberta’s economy.

Photos courtesy of Trade Winds to Success Training Society

Improving the employment rate among Indigenous people is especially important given Canada’s looming labour shortages in the trades; the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum estimates 122,380 new skilled tradespeople will be required over the next five years. At the same time, the Indigenous population is the fastest-growing group in Canada, having grown 9.4 per cent between 2016 and 2021, almost double the rate of the non-Indigenous population over the same period (+5.3 per cent).