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Aboriginal people harder hit by economic downturn

The economic downturn bruised all types of workers – but some were hit harder than others.

Employment levels among aboriginal people tumbled further and declined over a longer period of time than among the non-aboriginal work force through the downturn.

A Statistics Canada paper released Wednesday paints a troubling picture for a demographic group that faced much higher-than-average jobless rates even before the recession.

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It found the gaps in employment, unemployment and participation rates widened between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people over two years. By last year, the aboriginal jobless rate hit 12.3 per cent, compared with 6.8-per-cent among non-aboriginals.

"We should be concerned. Why? Because we are dealing already with some pretty horrific socio-economic gaps," said Kelly Lendsay, president and CEO of the Saskatoon-based Aboriginal Human Resources Council, who is of Métis descent.

Aboriginal people in the core-age working population saw employment levels slide 2.8 per cent in 2009 and another 4.9 per cent last year. By contrast, employment among non-aboriginal workers fell 1.7 per cent in 2009 – but rebounded 0.8 per cent last year.

Part of the reason for the deterioration may stem from job tenure. In downturns, many employers lay off the most recently hired workers first. A higher proportion of aboriginals had worked for their employers for five years or less, Statscan said.

Most of the job losses for aboriginal workers were full-time and in the private sector. By industry, employment losses were among trades, transport and equipment operators, sales and service workers and jobs related to processing, manufacturing and utilities.

Men were hit hardest. The jobless rate for aboriginal men between 25 and 54 reached 13.3 per cent last year – up 4.1 percentage points in the two-year period. It rose to 11.3 per cent among aboriginal women, an increase of 1.9 percentage points.

Education, it turns out, wasn't a big buffer against layoffs. From 2009 to 2010, employment rates continued to slide among all education levels for aboriginal workers, with the largest drops among those who had completed postsecondary education and those who had less than high school education, the report said.

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Many aboriginal youth simply stopped looking for work. Their participation rate in the labour force fell more sharply than for non-aboriginals.

Jeremy Belyea isn't surprised by the findings. The clinical counsellor who has eight years of postsecondary schooling, including a master's degree, is looking for work and says many of his educated peers are frustrated by a lack of opportunities.

"Some of the difficulties with my friends within the aboriginal community is getting access" to employers, said Mr. Belyea, 31, who is based in Prince George and chair of the Young Indigenous Professionals group. "The barriers come from perceptions on both sides of the table – a lot of aboriginal people don't feel capable or qualified, so they're not confident in approaching major companies that they want to work for. On the other hand, they haven't seen those companies really reaching out."

There are bright spots. School attendance among aboriginal youth went up in the two-period. The aboriginal jobless rate has improved this year – it is now 11.5 per cent, still higher than the 7-per-cent current rate for non-aboriginals.

Mr. Belyea is working to create a national mentorship program that will help connect aboriginal youth with established professionals. "We'd like to show corporate Canada and some of the bigger wigs out there that aboriginal people are capable and ready and just waiting to get more involved in the job market," he said.

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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