Workfare for reserves: Tory plan ties benefits for aboriginals to job training
John Ivison - Jun. 1, 2012
The Harper government is planning a workfare program that would oblige young aboriginals on reserves to undertake job training in return for a welfare cheque.
Ottawa wants to take young natives off welfare rolls before they become too used to receiving social assistance.
The government already spends $400-million on a range of training programs but sources suggest new money will be earmarked to improve delivery of programs for natives on reserves.
That part of the plan is likely to be warmly received by First Nations leaders. But the government is keen to tighten up eligibility requirements, as it has done recently with the Employment Insurance program. Native chiefs are less likely to welcome the idea of young band members having their benefits cut if they don't sign up for available training programs.
Jason MacDonald, director of communications for John Duncan, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, said it would not be accurate to say income assistance will be cut off but would not elaborate on how the government plans to transition native youth into training.
He said the government is committed to working with aboriginal peoples "to encourage those who can work to access training and encourage their participation in the labour market."
In the March budget, the Tories said they want to "better align on-reserve Income Assistance programs with provincial systems" in terms of compliance and program requirements. In provinces like Saskatchewan, income assistance is a program of last resort and requires able-bodied welfare recipients to look for work and take training courses when offered.
Yet, despite labour shortages across much of Western Canada, the number of aboriginals on income assistance remains stubbornly high.
Saskatchewan has an unemployment rate of 4.9%, yet 48.1% of natives on reserve are on income assistance. In Manitoba, which has an unemployment rate of 5.3%, half the on-reserve native population is on welfare.
There are pilot projects such as Active Measures in Saskatchewan - a tripartite initiative between First Nations and the federal and provincial governments - that aim to help people off income support by providing better access to career planning, literacy programs, training allowances, transport and child care.
Chief Felix Thomas of the Saskatoon Tribal Council said the Active Measures pilot still needs more funding to cover daycare, transportation and housing needs. But he said welfare rates have declined by 2% and he is encouraged by the involvement of companies like Potash Corporation, who have been working with local First Nations.
Working with willing bands is crucial. While the feds are keen to introduce a degree of uniformity across the system, income assistance is actually distributed by First Nations to their band members.
The government would not confirm any such plan exists but sources suggest First Nations will be encouraged to sign up for the program, attracted by the enhanced funding, but will be encouraged to cut off welfare for those refuse to accept training.
The federal government's ability to unilaterally make any major moves in the realm of aboriginal social policy is limited. A federal court judge in the Maritimes issued an injunction in April that will temporarily prevent Ottawa from reducing social assistance rates for First Nations.
The government wanted to align the rates for First Nations at provincial levels, which would have meant less money for recipients. The judge cited the absence of consultation with First Nations about the policy as the reason for the injunction.