With Six Nations Chief Ava Hill and Ontario Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation David Zimmer both making impassioned pleas at the recent Ontario Building Trades Council convention indicating a strong will to take a leap forward in First Nations skills training and economic development, one big question remained: is a breakthrough in sight?
Zimmer told the delegates assembled in Hamilton, Ont. on the first day of the two-day conference, held Oct. 13 and 14, that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has told the relevant cabinet ministers she wants to see significant progress towards reconciliation in five areas, including economic development. His guiding documents, Zimmer said, are the policy paper titled Journey Together: Ontario's Commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, released in May, and his subsequent ministerial mandate letter.
"Premier Wynne, for a whole lot of policy reasons and a whole lot of personal reasons, has put huge emphasis on indigenous relations," said Zimmer.
"Relationships between the indigenous world and the non-indigenous world, the indigenous community and the labour movement, indigenous people and government, it has to change and it's going to change."
The minister said there is a tremendous appetite for trades training among First Nations youth, meaning a potential ready supply of new members for the 13 craft building trades within the Ontario Building Trades Council. His ministry and others, such as the Ministry of Labour, are eager to meet those needs, with new training and economic development programs topping up existing ones and ample funding available.
Programs he mentioned include the Aboriginal Apprenticeship Board of Ontario, the Aboriginal Procurement Program, the Aboriginal Economic Development Fund, the Aboriginal Loan Guarantee Program, the First Nations Gaming and Revenue Sharing Agreement, the Metis Voyageur Development Fund and nine post-secondary indigenous training institutes.
"You should turn your mind to this question," he told the delegates. "How can we build our membership by attracting indigenous young people into our craft? Because if you are prepared to do that, the province has got all kinds of money and various programs to help you train them, to help them enter the workforce. It is a win, win, win for everyone."
For her part, speaking the second day of the conference, Hill described well-established construction infrastructure and training programs that have given the Six Nations a proven capacity to undertake a broad mix of construction projects. One partnership that shows potential, she said, is the newly created A6N, a joint venture with Aecon. There is also the Work-Ready Aboriginal People Program, created in association with the Hamilton-Brantford Building Trades Council of Ontario, which has enabled the Six Nations to forge links with 17 affiliates that represent over 25 construction trades and develop programs to expose indigenous youths to the construction trades.
In total, Hill said, the Six Nations has had over 80 new apprentices indentured in the Ontario system.
But even with all of these accomplishments over the years — she also mentioned how Haudenosaunee men are well known for their prowess as highrise steel workers — Hill said there remain extensive unanswered needs.
"We do want value for our citizens," said the chief.
"We know that some projects can only be short term for some trades. However, once our members get trained through the apprenticeship programs, we would like to see them have long-term employment commitments."
Better partnerships with all parties are needed for her people to continue to progress in the construction sector, she said.
"We are prepared to lobby the government to find a Canada-wide aboriginal apprenticeship initiative," said Hill.
She added, "In the spirit of a meaningful partnership, we would say that the unions and contractors must fulfill their commitment to aboriginal hiring and this should include meaningful and long-term positions and not just token jobs."
Commenting after Zimmer's speech, Ontario Building Trades Council business manager Patrick Dillon offered assurance that the trades are supportive of the province's stated intention to boost its training and development programs.
"There is a genuine interest in our industry, particularly from the trade-union side, but from our contractors too. In general, we are interested in being involved in doing the right thing to help you with your job," Dillon said, addressing Zimmer.
He acknowledged the good will expressed at the conference but said it remained uncertain that the right fixes have been drawn up.
"I don't think the government knows what the right thing is," Dillon said. "I am not saying that in any disparaging way, I think municipal, provincial and federal governments across this country want to do the right thing but don't know what that is and how you go about doing it."
Dillon called Hill's speech the most impactful of the conference.
"The most moving thing for the two days was Chief Hill's comments around indigenous issues and the reconciliation commission," he said.
"I just think that there is so much potential to do the right thing there, if people understand it. I know that people in this room would find value from her comments today that will help people like me and other leaders as we try to move forward with really putting some action in place."