History and Evolution of Canadian Aboriginal Employment Programming
For almost twenty-five years responsibility for employment and training services for Canadian Aboriginal people has been under the direct control and management of Aboriginal labour market organizations.
These are the second chance programs that pick up the pieces and provide access to new opportunities when the K-12 education system fails. Today the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy or ASETS program is managed and delivered by 85 organizations through 600 points of delivery in urban, rural and remote locations across Canada. Funded by the Government of Canada, ASETS plays an essential role in increasing the participation of Aboriginal people in the labour market and closing the socio-economic gap.
Prior to 1991 these services were delivered directly by the federal government. Pathways to Success from 1991 to 1996 signalled a new era in the way that the Government of Canada and Aboriginal people planned and implemented employment programming, including the establishment of joint management machinery and a commitment to delivery control by local Aboriginal organizations. Between 1996 and 1999 Regional Bilateral Agreements effectively devolved responsibility from the federal government to designated local Aboriginal organizations.
The programming was consolidated between 1999 and 2010 through the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Strategy or AHRDS, and then expanded to include on reserve and Inuit child care, as well as youth, disability, capacity building and urban components. During AHRDS 11 new programming outside the AHRDS umbrella was implemented, managed directly by the federal government. In 2010 AHRDS was rebranded by the party in power, Conservatives, as the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy or ASETS and re-focused on demand-driven skills development; partnerships with the private sector and provinces and territories; and accountability and results.
During the AHRDS/ASETS period the Government of Canada also devolved responsibility for the mainstream public employment service (PES) to all provinces and territories through Labour Market Development Agreements, starting with Alberta in 1996 and ending with the Yukon in 2010. Provinces and territories are now the experts in employment and training matters, not the Government of Canada. Ultimately over 2,800 federal civil servants and more than 1,000 service delivery contracts transferred over.
MANY CONSIDER ASETS TO BE “CANADA’S GREATEST HIDDEN ASSET”. SINCE 2005/06, AN AVERAGE OF 53,000 PEOPLE HAS BEEN SERVED EACH YEAR, WITH 16,000 RETURNED TO WORK AND 6,600 RETURNED TO SCHOOL. THE LARGER PES MANAGED BY PROVINCES AND TERRITORIES SERVED ALMOST 700,000 PEOPLE IN 2013/14.
Despite these positive results and the commitment of the Aboriginal community to the existing ASETS platform – re-affirmed by First Nations chiefs at their 2015 assembly − the future of ASETS is uncertain. The current five year agreements – which provide almost $350 million annually − were to end March 31, 2015. They have now received two extensions to March 2017. Over the past two years the federal government has consulted through regional round tables as well as through HUMA, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. However, no decisions on ASETS renewal have been taken. Instead, the much smaller project- based Strategic Partnership Fund (SPF) was renewed to 2020, with annual funding of $50 million.
The Pathways to ASETS legacy over the past twenty-five years has made a significant difference to Aboriginal labour market outcomes in Canada. Long-standing Aboriginal delivery and control has ensured − to a degree − that labour market services for Aboriginal people are locally designed, flexible and culturally sensitive. ASETS renewal discussions in 2015 – no matter who forms government after the fall election − provide a window of opportunity to address a number of issues that are impeding improved labour market outcomes for Aboriginal people in Canada.