There has been incessant talk in the media recently of how to implement Canada’s aboriginal population into the economy as the baby boomer generation has started to retire, leaving massive gaps in the country’s workforce that Canada does not have the human resources to fill.

Several government officials have also discussed the need to develop the aboriginal workforce. But with almost half of aboriginal adults lacking high school diplomas, it’s a difficult process.

According to Michael Petawabano, Territorial Programs for Cree Human Resources Development Co-ordinator, there is work available in just about every sector but, “We are seeing a lot of people that are coming to us that are lacking the essential skills to be able to access some of these jobs.”

According to CHRD, one of the hottest employment sectors in the north right now is construction and all related trades, from electricians to plumbers.

“These are not exact figures but I think in the Cree Nation you are looking at 200 homes being built on an annual basis,” said Petawabano. He says there is a dire need for workers in this sector: “There is a deficit of about 1,500 homes within the Cree Nation.”

However, remedying the manpower issue in the construction field is a complex issue as many individuals will take vocational programs but not complete the required apprenticeships. They may be experienced in the field but are not certified.

“The problem we see right now is that we are not certifying enough people. Even though they are getting the experience, they are not certified so we are not really advancing. Counting on outside companies to come in and hire our people means we are not being independent. We could set up our own companies. Now, even if we do start up our own companies, we usually have to do a joint venture because we don’t have that certification [to build buildings that are up to code],” said Petawabano.

When it comes to getting certified in certain trade domains, apprenticeships are necessary.

“The people in trades need to know that there is somewhere they can go to do their apprenticeship. And I think it’s because people don’t understand that the person who was taking the course as a carpenter has attained 1,300 hours, they think that the person is a carpenter already. But no: this person has to practice his trade under somebody who is a certified carpenter and they have to do, if I am not mistaken, up to 6,000 hours and then go and write an examination after that,” said Petawabano.

Most of the time students who graduate from vocational programs in the communities will not finish their apprenticeships because they would have to leave the communities. With apprenticeships in certain trade fields requiring years of working beneath a master in the field, individuals could be displaced for very long periods of time.

Petawabano also cited a need within the leadership of the communities to start awarding contracts to the kinds of companies who could locally provide these kinds of apprenticeships as a means of filling the employment gap in the long term.

“Once people start getting that certification they could start up their own little businesses and that is long-term employment and they will hold on to those jobs,” said Petawabano.

Other fields needing manpower

Construction is not the only domain that is begging for skilled workers. “Mining is big right now here in the north,” Petawabano said. All mining-related employment fields are experiencing a strong demand. Fortunately, a program will be opening up later on in 2008 at the Waswanipi School.

Nursing is one field of study that is always in tremendous demand in the north but can not be studied within the communities as with various other medical technical programs. With the projected construction of a new hospital in Mistissini, many new positions will be opening up. The question is whether the Cree workforce will be able to fill the positions.

“In Mistissini, do we even have any Cree nurses?” asked Petawabano. “I don’t think so. Do we even have any in the Cree Nation? There is probably a small number right? These are jobs that our people could be holding on to. I think we have one Cree doctor but that is all we have. Don’t you think that we could have one in each community at least?”

Tourism was another area that is dominated by people from outside of the communities. “I think that we need more people to take that initiative to say hey, how can I benefit from this and start my own outfitting camp or outfitting agency, taking people out on excursions and things like that,” said Petawabano.

“Another one that I see is in a major need is in telecom. Let’s look at technology: we are all advancing in technology and I see the Cree world counting on technicians from the outside world now,” said Petawabano. Again, there were not enough certified individuals within the community to fill the need.

Within these work fields there will also be a great need for administrative workers and support staff. Petawabano said there is also a demand in law, a great demand for teachers, a need for entrepreneurs and even a need for people to run new recycling initiatives within the communities.

Should anyone be looking to go into any variety of post-secondary education, either within or outside of the Cree communities, CHRD has funding available for any Cree and there is usually funding available from individual communities. CHRD individually funds all of the students who attend the vocational centre in Waswanipi, particularly those who have no other means of supporting themselves while they are studying. Those who are interested should contact both their local Continuing Education office and CHRD. For more information, go to