‘We need to do it better’

Steve McLellan. Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.

Sask. Chamber of Commerce CEO urges businesses to find ways to improve unemployment gap for Indigenous people

One of the province’s biggest untapped resources is the skillset of Indigenous peoples.

That was one of the topics Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan addressed during his luncheon talk in Prince Albert Friday. The CEO spoke about challenges and opportunities facing businesses in 2018. As he examined the province’s fiscal outlook, he touched on employment trends, including the gap between postsecondary achievement and employment.

“We measure the gaps between the non-Aboriginal workforce, Métis workforce and First nations workforce. The objective would be that there’s no gap,” he said.

“In fact, the gap between the Métis and non-Indigenous population is closing, and the gap between First Nations, while closing a little, is not closing nearly as fast as the others.”

Part of the issue, he said, was the province doesn’t have a labour market strategy. There is nothing that says what is need, or how many seats post-secondary programs should have.

“Because of this,” McLellan explained, “we’re just jerking around the labour market and individuals looking for opportunity.”

He stressed that it’s not solely a government or business or educational facility problem, but something the entire province is facing. He mentioned last year’s TransformSK engagement process.

“The biggest opportunity across the province was Aboriginal engagement. The biggest challenge across the province was Aboriginal engagement. The biggest priority? Aboriginal engagement. We need to do it better.”

McLellan said the post-secondary gap is just one symptom of a bigger problem.

“Truth and Reconciliation was not just a commission. It should be a part of what you do,” he said.

“If you haven’t read those recommendations, I encourage you to. Some of them are your responsibility. Some are the federal government’s. All of them, you have the ability to say we’re going to do this differently. What can we do that’s different?”

The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce is developing an Indigenous Charter for businesses. It would include promises CEOs can make to ensure their business is at least matching the 17 per cent Indigenous makeup of the province. It may also include supports and training to better accommodate Indigenous people in the workplace. It may also include educational opportunities to help break down biases and misconceptions between employees.

It may also be partnering with Indigenous businesses or suppliers.

That same approach can also apply to newcomers to Canada, or if a workplace has a generational divide.

“We have to, as employers and employees in the workforce, deal with everybody a bit differently,” McLellan said.

“We can’t just group everybody together and say if its good enough for one its good enough for all. Treating employees equally isn’t necessarily right, but treating them fairly is right.”

There’s a business case for improving diversity, too.

“Every single study says more women, more diversity in terms of cultures, more diversity in terms of ages, makes you a better business,” he said.

“Every single study. There is no question. As a province, our Indigenous population is 17 per cent. Every business should be at 17 per cent or more. We’re not. It’s good for business, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the province and it’s good for us as individuals.”

The other reason businesses should care, McLellan said, is it is a financial and a moral responsibility. Businesses pay the majority of the taxes in the province, and have to ensure that money is spent effectively.

Those people on the most wanted list represent lost customers, and lost opportunities for businesses and for the province.

“The headlines that say another kid died, another person in jail, if you read the testimonies of the lives of those people, none say they worked 12 years as a contractor or 15 years at SaskTel. We need to own it, and we will solve it together,” he said.

“We, as a province. Not we as chambers, not we as a bunch of non-Aboriginal folks, we as Saskatchewan need to own it and we will see results. If we don’t shame on us. If we don’t, the economic consequence is billions. The social cost is trillions. See what you can do. Just waiting for results is not going to get the success we need. You have a responsibility, but more importantly you have an opportunity. I would encourage you to take advantage of that opportunity.

“Once we understand how we can be better on one file, and all of those files are important to us, we will be better as a province.”