When the bodies of 215 children were discovered at a former residential school in B.C. this year, it sent an emotional shock wave around the country.
For Danny Deleary, a community engagement co-ordinator for the Aboriginal Apprenticeship Board of Ontario (AABO), it was a grim reminder of how little the average Canadian knows about their country’s history and what Indigenous people have gone through.
“Many Canadians are shocked, dismayed and are feeling what we have felt for decades now with regards to residential schools,” said Deleary. “It shows how unaware and uneducated Canadians in general have been in regard to Indigenous issues.”
Deleary believes much of the intolerance, indifference and assumptions around Indigenous workers in construction are due to poor knowledge of Indigenous history and issues.
One major issue is decades of chronic underfunding for First Nations schools. And Indigenous people who live in cities often are in poorer areas, which also have lower quality education. This has become a massive barrier to trades entry that can’t be addressed unless it is understood by employers and unions.
Deleary said many unions have started to address this with pre-apprenticeship programs that provide academic training and job skills to prepare aspiring Indigenous tradespeople.
“When the construction industry and sector becomes aware of the issues Indigenous people face, then they can address their intake process,” said Deleary. “We have never asked for standards to be lowered. What we have asked for is an understanding and appreciation of unique Indigenous barriers. We need to address those in different ways and be open to that.”
To address the lack of understanding, AABO has developed an Indigenous awareness program, a one-day crash course in Indigenous history, politics, legal issues, barriers and more.
“From that we have seen the development of understanding and awareness,” said Deleary.
“We want them to understand what we go through as Indigenous people and be empathetic towards that. There is still a great need for education because we still face intolerant people who believe that Indigenous people are handed everything. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Deleary explained once the gap can be bridged between Indigenous people and careers in trades, the results are transformative for generations.
“Success breeds success. When those young people see their friends taking these opportunities, buying boats, trucks, adding an extension onto their homes, it makes them want it and they start asking how to get it,” said Deleary, who noted that ironworker unions have a rich history of accepting generations of Indigenous workers in the U.S. and Canada.
“My great uncle was an ironworker who built in Detroit and Chicago,” said Deleary. “His success bred more success. Others saw that and we have seen generations enter that workforce. We want to see that for all the trades. If we get people in the door now we will see generation after generation entering.”
Dale Swampy, vice-president of the Aboriginal Skilled Workers Association (ASWA), says the group is small but growing. The non-profit helps skilled workers to obtain employment contracts, become contractors, develop the capacity to bid on significant work projects and train more workers.
Since 2015 he’s seen the number of self-identified Indigenous workers in the oil and gas sector grow from 12,000 to 14,000.
He believes Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) requirements are key to advancing Indigenous people in the trades.
“The requirements by builders and contractors to be inclusive wasn’t really a requirement that won or lost bids, but now it is,” said Swampy. “If a contractor doesn’t have a policy that conforms to ESG guidelines they will not get the contract. And that is what is important now. Companies are now taking it seriously and not making excuses.”
Swampy said he has heard many excuses for companies not hiring Indigenous people including that they don’t show up for work, no Indigenous people apply, they don’t have the capacity to do contract work or they don’t have enough education.
“Those excuses don’t tread any water now and those excuses are unfounded,” said Swampy.
Swampy explained in certain regions of the country, cliques form around contractors and those who manage the awarding of bids. This leads many to avoid identifying as Indigenous for fear of being profiled.
Indigenous communities have been pounded by poverty which has led to decades of social problems like violence, drug abuse, alcoholism and more, Swampy explained. But sharing in the economic benefits and jobs that come from large energy projects can help lift Indigenous communities out of poverty.
“Once we become part of an economy we want to be a part of a society and we participate more easily,” said Swampy.
“We want to get away from people complaining that billions of dollars of tax revenue goes to First Nations and social welfare funding. And the only way to do that is an equal and fair chance at jobs in this country.”
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