May 2008

Ready or not, here they come

Towards workplace inclusion

By S. Hammond

A journeyman welder in Diavik’s mine maintenance shop, Robert Lafferty is among over 500 northerners, approximately half of whom are aboriginal, working at Diavik.

Two distinct groups of people could hold the key to alleviating an impending labour shortage in the Canadian mining industry. Paradoxically, they are respectively our newest and our most longstanding citizens — recent immigrants and indigenous Canadians.

On the one hand, employers are looking to members of these two demographics to fill job vacancies, including specialized positions that require great skill. On the other hand, many people in business still harbour fears and misconceptions about both groups. The concern with immigrants is that they may not have enough Canadian experience. In all cases, there may be some apprehension that those who appear “different” may not fit in socially. They also fear that these new employees may complain to supervisors, or even the human rights commission, for offensive remarks or conduct (real or perceived) by coworkers.

The fact is, most of our misgivings are unfounded, especially if we give prospective Canadians a real chance to make their mark, with all the support and consideration we show any person who starts a new job.  However, it does take a little conscious effort and it doesn’t always happen overnight.

Canada is seeing a demographic shift in our population that has not been evident since the depression. While immigrants coming to this country in the 1920s and 1930s were dissimilar primarily because of their language and ethnicity, most of them were white, like the majority of the population, and fit into some form of Christian faith.  But that was in the days when Canada gave preference to immigrants from countries where most people were white.  With changes to the Immigration Act in 1967, we no longer allowed that kind of discriminatory preference, and Canada gradually began to accept people who were more adequately represented in the global demographic.

According to the 2001 census (religion wasn’t included in the 2006 census) the fastest growing religious groups in Canada were Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. While their numbers were still small compared to Christians, who made up 73 per cent of the population, Catholics and Protestants were actually shrinking as a percentage of the population, while persons from the other four religions are growing.

This isn’t a big surprise, particularly for people living in Canada’s major urban centres, to where many of the new immigrants have traditionally gravitated. However, as newer Canadians begin to feel more comfortable here, they are increasingly willing and able to leave the comfort of family and neighbours speaking their native language and move to the more remote locations where mining and exploration take place.

There is also a big demographic shift with aboriginal Canadians.  According to the more recent 2006 census, aboriginals, including First Nations, Indian, Metis, Inuit and persons of mixed heritage, made up 3.8 per cent of the Canadian population. While this number might seem small, it represents an entire one per cent growth in just 10 years. While all other demographic groups of Canadians have either flat or declining birth rates (mostly declining), those of aboriginal Canadians are increasing. In western Canada the numbers are much higher, as with Saskatchewan and Manitoba where approximately 15 per cent of the population is made up of aboriginals, and those numbers are expected to grow. Also, while the median age of non-aboriginal Canadians is 39.5, the median age of aboriginals is only 26.5. This much younger demographic could be quite desirable in the face of an aging population.

With so many aboriginals already living in close proximity to mining communities and a burgeoning group of new Canadians ready to move away from the urban centres, it’s time to look at effective ways of enticing them into the industry.

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