First Nations Business

 

[Editor: Spending a small amount of $ to achieve a larger amount of money is called an investment: spending a large amount of money to keep things the same should be called a crime! In this article Matt Gurney points out how the Little Pine band leadership in conjunction with the federal government has made another FIRST NATION, FIRST INVESTMENT. And it is working in more ways than one.]

Matt Gurney: How a First Nations band is fixing its big welfare problem with a small solution 

Steel-toed construction boots have made a huge difference on Little Pine First Nations reserve.
FotoliaSteel-toed construction boots have made a huge difference on Little Pine First Nations reserve.

There’s an old proverb that tells how an entire kingdom was lost because a horse throws a shoe, “for want of a nail.” It reminds us how seemingly small details can have big, even disastrous, consequences. One small native band has taken the meaning behind the proverb to heart, but has turned it on its head: The small detail is now saving a community, not dooming it.

The local leadership, and their partners in the federal government, have benefited mightily from a decision not to let their community suffer for want of not nails, but boots. With a few buses and shuttle vans thrown in for good measure.

The boots in question are steel-toed construction boots, and they’ve made a huge difference on Little Pine First Nations reserve, home to 600-some-odd souls located about 90 kilometres southwest of the city of Lloydminster, on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

Little Pine had been paying unemployed band members welfare, until a pilot project begun last year began putting locals to work.

Under the program, run jointly by the band and the federal Northern Affairs Department, resumes were collected and distributed to local (that term is used somewhat loosely here) employers. Job training was provided for anyone who needed to learn, or improve, a skill. Many of the band members were desired by the employers, but were unable to accept the employment because they either had no way to get to where the jobs were, or lacked the equipment necessary to accept the position.

Enter the buses and the boots.

There were 70 band members who were eager to work and had jobs waiting, but didn’t have the steel-toed safety boots to safely work on the job site, a Husky Energy project. So the band raised $7,000 dollars and bought every member willing to work a pair of boots. To get the workers to the jobsite, the band also bought two buses and two shuttle vans.

The results have been remarkable. After the first 70 band members got working, others in the community began to look for employment. “When they see all these friends and family members go to work, they want to be a part of it too,” said Chief Wayne Semaganis. “It’s a sense of belonging.” A further 30 band members have found work outside the band, including work in the retail sector or hospitality industries in larger communities in the region. The total effect of the project, thus far, has been cutting Little Pine’s welfare roster. Chief Semaganis said when he first became chief four years ago, he’d have to sign well over 400 welfare cheques a month. Now, it’s just over 100.

‘When they see all these friends and family members go to work, they want to be a part of it too’

That itself is an achievement. But Chief Semaganis went further, saying that some of the real effects of the initiative have been social. The community has become calmer, as men who work all day are too tired to stay out at night, perhaps getting into trouble. “For young people to see their parents, older brothers and sisters, and older relatives working, it’s a good example,” he said.“That’s all we look for, to make it better for our children and our grandchildren.”

The paycheques the employees are bringing home are bigger than their welfare cheques, which average at $255 a month for individual men and women. Some band members are now getting paid as much as $20 an hour for full-time work, said Chief Semaganis, meaning there’s more money in the community and more food on the family dinner table.

It’s a happy story. Not just because it’s a pleasant change to hear news of a remote northern community that’s improving, rather than grappling with suicide, isolation and tainted water. But it’s also a story that should be heard far and wide, especially  by any — in or out of government — that thinks helping Canada’s natives to lead dignified and fulfilled lives as fully contributing citizens of this country is too big a problem to be solved.

Totally eliminating welfare is impossible, said Chief Semaganis, because many who rely on it cannot physically go to work. “But certainly for the ones that have the capacity, we should be finding ways to get them to work…Hopefully down the road people can truly look after themselves without that extra push, and that’s where we want to get.”

It’s too big a problem to be solved by yet another blue-ribbon panel or national investment program, perhaps. But we’ve had enough of those. In a lot of cases, the real path to prosperity isn’t going to be the Ottawa bureaucracy, but a new pair of workboots, and maybe a shuttle van or two.

National Post, with files from Tanya Mok

• Email: mgurney@nationalpost.com 

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