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Joseph Quesnel: Indigenous peoples have a chance for real progress—If they grasp it

Commentary

The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy is a new policy think tank focused on Canadian civil society, democracy, and the country’s foundational ideas and values. Its first major output is an essay compilation entitled The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—Not Cancelled. The Hub is pleased to publish weekly excerpts from the book’s essays over the coming weeks.


Reflecting on the evolution of federal policy, it should be obvious in the third decade of the 21st century that one significant mistake made by the federal government in history was to federalize every issue involving Indigenous peoples. 

For better or worse, the British set out on the federalizing policy path starting with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which determined that the Indigenous inhabitants of this land would be treated as collectives and negotiated with through signed treaties that set out rights and responsibilities. From the start, though, it was the central government and it alone that dealt with First Nation communities. 

As with most top-down approaches that exist far from local conditions, Indigenous policy in Ottawa became rigid and inflexible in meeting changing needs and circumstances. It forced onto Indigenous people a “one-size fits all” system of governance. Not only this, but the Indian Act did not keep up with the rapidly evolving changes taking place in Canada. 

For example, as provinces began to create education and health care systems, First Nations on reserve found themselves islands of federal jurisdiction within the provinces. Programs and services delivered by local or provincial governments to other Canadians were instead delivered by distant federal civil servants to First Nations. 

Whereas provinces were able to tailor policies to suit their populations, Indigenous people had to contend with an inflexible federal Indian Act regime that denied them full access to their own lands and required them to sign off with far-away Ottawa on most aspects of public life. 

In the 21st century, First Nations people on reserves find themselves facing the same problems they dealt with at the start of Confederation: an inflexible federal regime that demands oversight for basic economic transactions, band governance that is more accountable to the federal government than its own membership, and land restrictions that were intended to protect the Indigenous land base but that now prevent Indigenous entrepreneurs and governments from accessing capital. 

In other words, First Nations still have 19th century tools in a 21st century world, which explains the slow progress out of poverty on many reserves. 

Still, there are signs of an economic spring. First Nations have changed in recent decades because a growing urban middle class formed from members exposed to the way in which the rest of Canada lives. They support certain constitutional rights for their communities but are much more open to voluntary change and want democratic governance and prosperity. 

As a journalist and Indigenous policy analyst for over 15 years, I have witnessed and documented this shift within the Indigenous populace. In addition, Indigenous leaders have emerged who have galvanized indigenous support for change. They have challenged the so-called Aboriginal orthodoxy. British Columbia Indigenous businessman and lawyer Calvin Helin, whose 2008 book Dances with Dependency documented the problems of dependency within First Nations communities, is an example. 

So, too, are reformist political leaders such as Kamloops Chief Manny Jules, Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band, and Ellis Ross, now a Liberal member of the British Columbia legislature but who previously was the elected chief councillor for the Haisla First Nation on the coast of British Columbia. It was Ross who, in attracting natural gas investment to that territory, was the main force behind its drive from poverty to prosperity. 

There are also now many pro-business, pro-reform Indigenous voices, and many pro-development Indigenous organizations such as the Indian Resource Council and others. 

The best way to understand the dynamic now underway in Indigenous Canada is its parallel to a previous revolution in Quebec. In July 2022, Diane Francis wrote in the Financial Post of how Indigenous peoples in Canada were undergoing a “Quiet Revolution.” This was a reference to the period in Quebec’s history when that province, and the society therein, underwent profound social and political upheaval, including calls for modernization.

First Nations people thus have both a choice and a chance. They seek the same good life and avenues to the same as do other Canadians and despite any rhetoric to the contrary: greater opportunity for themselves and their children and honest, transparent governance in their communities. 

Although most are committed to addressing past struggles, such as unresolved land claims and recognition of Indigenous rights—no easy task given different views about what those terms mean—many are more concerned about economic independence for their communities and jobs for themselves and their family members. Rather critically, and whether they like it or not, some Indigenous leaders need to respond to these changing priorities just as mainstream Canada must grasp that positive change will not occur overnight. 

Nonetheless, the past decade has seen an increase in financial transparency from First Nation governments and organizations, which is precisely what First Nations people on reserve desire: transparency and accountability from their leaders. 

Evidence for this exists in the high number of First Nation communities that still post financial information online despite the federal Liberal government’s decision to stop enforcing a previous Conservative law requiring that they do so. Not coincidentally, the more this occurs, the more such reforms will help lay the groundwork for future opportunities and prosperity. This is positive as it means ever-fewer Indigenous people would accept a return to past obfuscation. 

In addition, an increasing number of Indigenous communities now demand that they be equipped with the vast array of economic tools that are critical to improving their communities, including the property rights that mainstream Canadians take for granted as a foundation for flourishing individuals, families, and communities.

One frank truth must be acknowledged: The real division in the 21st century is not necessarily between “Indigenous” and “settlers” as many vested interests, too many academics, and some Indigenous ideologues claim. 

Instead, the division is between middle-class, pro-reform Indigenous leaders, grassroots Indigenous peoples, and businesspeople, versus the Indigenous political organizations and scholars who are overly invested in the status quo including reflexive, unproductive activism. 

That status quo includes an attachment to ongoing government-granted preferences including, ironically, for the continued isolation of Indigenous peoples, but this time justified with reference to protecting an assumed “pure” culture. 

This opposition to needed change is why reformists in government and elsewhere must find common cause with the Indigenous reformist voices who are already pushing for change, and marginalize those too invested in the status quo.  

Andrea Mrozek: Staffing shortages are a bad look for the government’s expensive daycare program

Commentary

“The whole world is short-staffed—be kind to those that showed up,” reads a sign outside an Ottawa doctor’s office. It’s a sign of the times.

Labour shortages are common today, but none have received as much attention as child care.

The success of the Trudeau government’s Canada-wide early learning and child care plan (sometimes described as its “national daycare plan”) hinges on parents actually gaining access to subsidized spaces. Nationally, there are licensed spaces for only roughly 30 percent of Canadian children, and licensed care is the only kind included in the $10 per day plan.

That means spending billions and finding that existing spaces can’t be filled due to staffing shortages isn’t a good look.

And forget about expansion—the YMCA Canada reports a staffing shortage so severe even children currently enrolled cannot attend. In a March 2023 briefing to the federal committee studying child care legislationthe YMCA wrote that it’s missing “419 staff to meet current registrations, 1,427 staff to return to pre-COVID operating capacity, 2,869 staff to move to licensed capacity and 3,442 to expand beyond licensed capacity by 20 percent.”

Yet not every daycare is reporting shortages, and where they are, increasing wages and benefits is not viewed as a panacea. Parent groups, child care associations, daycare owners, and early childhood educators are talking about solutions beyond money.

If you understand “child care as the care of a child no matter who does it,” then there is no labour shortage at all, said Helen Ward, who leads Kids First Parent Association.

“There is a huge early learning and child care labour supply. All kids, with a minority of exceptions, are currently actually in child care,” said Ward. “There are more healthy grandparents/elders and fewer young kids proportionally than ever before… Grandparents and aunties are key in Indigenous cultures as in other ethnic groups, and all are ignored and sidelined by an official definition of child care as including only licensed daycare.”

Ward’s definition may better reflect family practice across Canada. It is not, however, remotely acceptable amongst some child care activists, and by extension, politicians and policymakers. For them, child care is done by credentialed professionals.

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care advocates this dominant narrative. Her group’s solution to staffing shortages lies primarily in improving wages and benefits.

“Our position is there should be a provincial child care workforce strategy that includes a provincial salary scale for ECEs and child care workers,” said Ferns. “I believe recruitment strategies that focus on training and hiring more ECEs will not work until we deal with the retention crisis. The two things should ideally happen in tandem, but wages are a key piece of both recruitment and retention.”

They’re asking that salaries start at $30/hour for registered ECEs and $25/hour for non-registered ECE staff.

Wages may be key but they’re not the only thing bringing people to work. Another important factor is flexibility, something Robert Southam, who runs two daycares in B.C.’s Okanagan, has discovered.

He solved his staffing issues by not seeking credentialed ECEs. Instead, he hires for fit and aptitude and offers paid on-the-job training.

“The wage argument is an old school mentality, a legacy demand that has lost some of its relevance with the current workforce that really wants flexibility,” he said.

When he runs his ads, he gets “a barrage of applicants.” These include young women between jobs, highly educated foreign applicants looking to establish a career in Canada, or a 29-year-old mom, who is currently working minimum wage, evenings and weekends.

“Our offer is, for them, a lot better than what they are currently doing,” said Southam.

For him, a mandated wage grid would kill jobs. He has budgeted four educators whereas B.C. legislation only requires three. “If my ten-year educator is getting $27/hour and if the wage grid comes in and says you have to pay her $32, I can no longer afford to have four educators,” he said.

Children play on a play structure as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to parents at the YMWCA daycare in Winnipeg. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Data collected by the College of Early Childhood Educators, Ontario’s ECE regulator, also points to attrition for reasons beyond wages. For ECEs who’ve resigned, almost half (49 percent) cite “no longer working in the ECE field” as a reason. Retirement comes next at 17 percent. But a significant 12 percent have moved to another province or country. This speaks to a need for immigration reform.

Anny Nasser, an Ontario daycare owner, has lost staff to other provinces.

“There’s a lot of staff who come in and move to other provinces because it’s favourable immigration-wise. I’ve had two staff leave because of that. One moved to Nova Scotia and one moved to B.C.,” she says. “I will say I’ve never had staffing issues until post-COVID.”

Andrea Hannen, executive director of the Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario, hopes for a “whole government” approach to labour shortages. This means the involvement of several ministries. 

Although the ministry of education already provides tuition assistance, she encouraged the ministry of labour to help international students work across the province and the ministry of colleges and universities to help existing daycare workers get ECE qualifications.

For Hannen, wages and benefits are not the sole answer, either.

“Benefits are definitely an issue and there is wage disparity,” she said. “Often people go to the public sector because it pays better. But whether public or private, working conditions can be challenging. Often there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the workplace. There are other factors, like having sufficient autonomy as an educator.”

Southam and Hannen both believe the labour shortage could be quickly resolved with a concerted effort. Southam mused about whether those advocating for higher wages and benefits actually want to solve the problem.

“The labour shortage seems to serve their purpose. If the labour shortage is solved, the government’s institutionalization of child care becomes less of a thing to mandate,” he said.

While ECE recruitment and retention are not new subjects, the core focus until recently was a shortage of spaces, not workers. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who recently concluded a consultation about the child care labour situation, said he heard the feedback “loud and clear” about wage increases. Ontario’s ministry of education did not reply to requests about who was consulted or what those consultations entailed.

Meanwhile, many child care workers and owners likely agree with Nasser.

“Child care as a whole is experiencing either a growth spurt or a transition,” she said. “Something is in the air. And I kind of need it to settle. It’s a lot on everyone’s plate.”