Reconciliation with a paycheque: How a new focus on good jobs is helping young Indigenous people and B.C.'s economy

Topic(s): Community-based Training, Economic Development, Employment, Job Training, Reconciliation, Self-Sufficiency, Skills Training

As a journeyman ironworker, Dalia Landaverde has installed the structural skeletons in some of Vancouver’s largest and most impressive residential towers.

Standing outside a massive construction site in South Vancouver, the 29-year-old woman beams with pride while discussing how this well-paying job pulled her out of poverty.

“I was a brand new, young single mom — no job, no education, really no prospects of what to do,” she recalled.

“Now I live off Commercial Drive. I support my son by myself. I have a big, nice truck. I’ve done all right for myself.”

At age 23, she was a self-described “noodly-armed girl” with no labour experience. She attributes her transformation first to BladeRunners, a Vancouver non-profit that trains at-risk Indigenous youth for entry-level construction work, and then to her employer, LMS Reinforcing Steel Group, for supporting her to get the high-ranking journeyman designation.

Now, six years later, she is training apprentices sent to her by BladeRunners. “I’m able to give back to my community by taking on these awesome Native young kids that were in my position, who are now on site and working towards what I’ve got.”

Landaverde is among a growing group of people who believe there are more career opportunities today for Indigenous youth, allowing them to lift themselves out of generations of hardship sparked by settlers robbing ancestors of their land and way of life.

“I am so optimistic for our next generation because we are collectively healing so much from our traumas,” said the ironworker, who grew up in East Vancouver.

“We see these young people who are out here taking advantage of resources, schooling, training programs, such as myself. And we’re making it.”

The progress so far is modest, often hindered by the disproportionate number of obstacles many Indigenous people face, including racism, poor graduation rates, a lack of money for job training, or families struggling with the effects of systemic wrongdoing, such as residential schools. Landaverde, though, remains encouraged.

This fledgling trend is important not just for reconciliation, but also for the economy; at a time of a major labour shortage, the Indigenous population is growing at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians.

“I think many opportunities have increased because many First Nations out there have agreements with some of these major projects that are occurring, whether it be pipelines, mines or construction,” said B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee.

“We’ve also seen an increase in demand for labour for those types of jobs in trades and technology, because (Canada) has an aging population, and a lot of those positions are being left. So it does provide an opportunity for First Nations to fill those but, at the same time, it does require a level of education.”

The number of Indigenous people ages 25 to 54 with either high school or post-secondary education showed signs of improvement over the last five years, increasing moderately from 73 per cent in 2019 to 77 per cent in 2022 and 74 per cent in 2023, Statistics Canada reported. The average for non-Indigenous Canadians was 85 per cent in 2023.

When it came to employment, Statistics Canada census data found the number of Indigenous people ages 25 to 64 with jobs grew by seven per cent between 2016 and 2021, although the overall employment rate (when adjusted for population growth) remained relatively stable. In 2021, 61 per cent of Indigenous adults were employed, compared to 74 per cent of the non-Indigenous population.

Finding good jobs and increasing education for Indigenous youth is a “work in progress,” said Lynn White, CEO of ACCESS (Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society), which provides education and training to Indigenous people in Metro Vancouver.

She believes new opportunities are opening in part because of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has been adopted in Canada and B.C. as a framework to end discrimination and increase economic fairness.

“It’s happening, but it’s still slow,” said White, an Indigenous woman who grew up in East Vancouver and has been with ACCESS for 19 years.

“It’s building those (employment) relationships in a way that we’re partners … We don’t want you to hire an Indigenous person because you need a token Indigenous person. We want you to hire them because they’re the best person for the job.”

ACCESS offers training in trades skills, but also other programs, including for makeup artists in the film industry, flight attendants, early childhood educators, entry-level health care workers, and for Metro Vancouver’s 911 dispatcher, E-Comm. It also oversees BladeRunners.

The goal, White said, is to get unemployed Indigenous people into meaningful work, “not a job that’s going to keep them in poverty. We want them to to be successful and find out what their passion is.”

The gap in median income compared to other Canadians has narrowed for some Indigenous workers over the last 15 years: In 2005, it was $51,000 for non-Indigenous Canadians compared to $44,500 for Métis (the highest Indigenous earners) and $27,000 for people on reserves, Statistics Canadafound. By 2020, the median income for non-Indigenous Canadians was $48,000 compared to $46,000 for Métis and $29,000 for those on reserve.

One major source of new, well-paying jobs for Indigenous people is the mega projects First Nations are building on their own land. A prime example is the MST Development Corporation, a powerhouse merger of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations that amassed 20 million square feet of land in Metro Vancouver and is now employing many band members to build on it.

“It’s bridging that gap of being underemployed and making them really employed, with career jobs,” said Tsleil-Waututh Coun. Dennis Thomas-Whonoak, who until recently was his Nation’s senior business development manager.

“We have 60 years of work, guaranteed work, for our three communities. But we also have the third largest urban population in Canada, so there’s a great talent pool. (It’s) what I often refer to as the ‘rebuilding of our economies.'”

“The sky’s the limit”

Indigenous people, he said, had a prosperous trade economy that was eradicated by colonization. Today, his people are increasingly pursuing Western business practices and academia to forge new pathways by, for example, establishing rebar, electrical and drywall companies to service MST developments.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Thomas-Whonoak, who is executive director of Indigenous Business Initiatives and Engagement at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, a new role created to recruit Indigenous students and ensure the courses offered meet their needs.

“There’s hundreds of different jobs you can choose within all of (MST’s) development projects. Hundreds. And the point of rebuilding an Indigenous economy is making sure that our people have an opportunity to fill those spaces,” he said.

Thomas-Whonoak is working with other organizations to help Indigenous high school students earn better grades, have access to meaningful courses that also meet post-secondary prerequisites, and find the money needed for university.

He believes the groundwork has been laid for success, noting society is in “a paradigm shift.” Canada has a new national holiday to pay tribute to Truth and Reconciliation, and today’s elementary school students are learning far more about Indigenous people than in the past.

That’s in addition to the federal government proclaiming June 21 as National Indigenous Peoples Day in 1996.

“You’re starting to see an uprising in a lot of ally-ship from non Indigenous people too … (who) want to be a part of this reconciliation journey,” he said.

“You’re starting to see different corporate companies, but also municipalities, create procurement strategies that will foster local Indigenous businesses.”

The number of Indigenous people looking for work is significantly higher than for the non-Indigenous population, but that gap narrowed slightly over the last five years, according to Statistics Canada.

One out of every 10 Indigenous people ages 15 and older said they couldn’t find a job in 2019, twice the rate of the non-Indigenous population. That fell modestly to eight per cent of Indigenous people searching for employment in 2022 and nine per cent in 2023, compared to five per cent for non-Indigenous people.

The situation for Indigenous job seekers is not ideal, but “it’s moving forward in a great direction,” said Jason Watt, director of BladeRunners, the agency that threw a lifeline to Landaverde. It provides training and life skills for at-risk youth with barriers to employment, such as homelessness, mental health issues, navigating the justice system, or poor work experience.

BladeRunners has helped about 3,000 youth in Metro Vancouver since its launch three decades ago, and more than 10,000 across the province. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, 644 youth in 15 B.C. communities got training, and nearly one third were women.

Three-quarters of the BladeRunners have been placed in jobs, some with big-name developers such as Concord Pacific and Westbank Corp., but Watt said the organization hopes to find even more businesses to apprentice their youth.

“Feeling positive about my future”

This month Jordan Mousseau, 27, started attending BladeRunners classes, which offer breakfast and lunch along with job-readiness lessons, and will apply for an apprenticeship.

He believes BladeRunners will “bolster” his trajectory toward a successful career — much like a device on a toy racetrack that makes tiny cars go faster. “For me, this just feels like the speed boost of a Hot Wheels car on the track,” he said.

Mousseau, who is Métis, graduated from high school and supported himself bartending until Vancouver’s cost of living soared out of his reach. In June 2023, he became the first person in his family to go to college, but while studying carpentry at BCIT he lived under a tree in Burnaby’s Central Park.

BCIT found him a dorm room, and after he graduated in December he moved into the 38-unit BladeRunners Place operated by ACCESS in Vancouver. Mousseau praised the program for being non-judgmental, reconnecting him with his culture, and providing additional trades training to make him more employable.

“I’m feeling more positive about my future now than I ever have in the past 27 years,” he said, crediting BladeRunners and his family and friends.

The provincially funded organization supports workers ages 16 to 30 after they are placed in apprenticeships, helping with issues such as finding transportation to the site and having the correct gear.

“BladeRunners is the foundation of many Indigenous people having opportunities with incomes that they never thought that they could be a part of,” said Watt, an Indigenous man who himself went through BladeRunners in Vancouver in 2008.

BladeRunners job coaches help their students through that anxiety, Watt said. “Getting somebody a job is easy but having them maintain it, that’s the hard part. And so this whole team, they’re unpaid social workers, unpaid drug and alcohol counsellors.”

In addition to trades work, which is the main focus of the Vancouver and Surrey offices, BladeRunners provides job-readiness skills for additional industries, such as firefighting, animation and culinary arts, in other locations across the province, including Northern B.C., the Interior and Vancouver Island, Watt said.

Rural bands prosper, also struggle

Some rural First Nations communities have become equity shareholders in major infrastructure and natural resources projects in their territories, such as the Nisga’a and the Whispering Pines/Clinton Band, providing many direct and indirect jobs for their members.

But that’s not the case for all Indigenous bands. Some oppose these projects while some sites are too remote to provide significant employment opportunities for their members.

There’s stigmatization, though, that comes with Indigenous people searching for employment: They can be slapped with stereotypical labels by non-Indigenous workers, but they can also be intimidated by large job sites full of labourers with different ethnic backgrounds, Watt said.

“There’s some First Nations communities that probably have almost zero unemployment rate, and then you have some that have as high as 80 per cent unemployment rate. So we’ve got to figure out how to help and support the ones that don’t have (those opportunities),” said Teegee, the regional chief.

In all areas of the province, though, making employment opportunities accessible to more Indigenous people requires overcoming major obstacles, such as the basic education to pursue these jobs.

Teegee said there are solutions. The Assembly of First Nations has lobbied the federal government to increase funding for job-coaching organizations through its Indigenous Skills and Employment Training program, because trades courses have become more expensive and there is a growing Indigenous population who want training.

Some school districts are offering Indigenous students access to trades courses in high schools, he added, and a variety of colleges support Indigenous people completing their high school diplomas.

As another part of the solution, ACCESS, the employment services society, works with Indigenous high school students to improve their odds of graduating. It also exposes youth to a wide range of new experiences, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)sessions; offers classes to upgrade computer abilities, math and English proficiency, and communication; and helps them find new jobs.

The Insurance Corp. of B.C., for example, provides training documents that ACCESS uses to prepare Indigenous clients for interviews for entry-level jobs such as service representative. About three dozen applicants recently got employment with the provincial insurance agency, said White, the ACCESS president.

“It’s time to go full circle”

In the 2023-24 fiscal year, ACCESS served 1,465 Indigenous people who live in Vancouver but hail from 318 different communities. More than half, 57 per cent, are employed or returned to school, which White argues is a good success rate given the relatively low graduation and employment stats organizations like hers are trying to improve.

Those who weren’t ready to go to work or return to school might have taken a life skills course, a good first step toward their future.

“We meet them where they’re at,” White said. “It’s a journey.”

CCESS also operates the Vancouver and Surrey BladeRunners offices, and provides support and provincial funding for 13 other locations run by service groups across B.C.

BladeRunners helped Gerald Green, 38, become a plumber, a career he worked at successfully for several years, eventually making $35 an hour and becoming a foreman. It also inspired him to enrol recently at the Native Education College in Vancouver to get his high school diploma.

A year from now, he hopes to complete his education and achieve his Red Seal ticket, which ensures a national standard of knowledge in plumbing. He would also like to be a role model for his eight-year-old daughter and seven-year-old twin boys, as well as become a leader within BladeRunners to inspire other Indigenous people at a time of growing opportunities for good jobs.

“It is something that I want to accomplish for my kids,” he said. “When they realize, ‘My dad’s finished high school’ — he may not have finished it when he should have but he completed it — ‘so it must be important, right?’

“It’s time to go full circle and become one of the leaders that had gotten me this far … I want to become one of those people that made this happen.”