Cultural divide separates farmers, Indigenous workers

Sage Shade rides his horse through the feedlot pens at VRP Farms, checking for cattle that need treatment. It’s spring and the pens are muddy from melting snow and ice, so the job of pen rider isn’t at its most pleasant.

Still, Shade says he likes the job and the variety it offers. He is one of 180 employees at VRP and one of only four who are First Nations.

Shade grew up on the Kainai (Blood) Reserve in Alberta’s southwest, a part of the Blackfoot Nation. It is the largest native reserve in the province, spanning 351,960 acres, and it is home to more than 12,000 people.

The unemployment rate is high among First Nations citizens here and across Canada. And the need for agricultural labour is also high. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council estimates there are more than 26,000 unfilled agricultural jobs across the country.

It begs the question: Why aren’t there more First Nations workers in agricultural jobs?

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It’s a bigger question than one man can answer, says Shade.

There are historical, political, economic and cultural aspects.

“It’s a number of things. It’s almost like seclusion. Everyone is stuck on the reserve and they can’t get off. Drugs are a main thing. Alcohol is obviously a big factor.

“It’s kind of like going to another country, once you leave the reserve. That’s how a lot of people see it.”

In the case of VRP, the low number of First Nations workers is not from lack of trying, says human resources manager Jolayne Farn. Advertisements, postings on First Nations websites and participation in job fairs are part of those efforts but response is low.

“I am looking for pen riders every day,” says Farn. There are 38 pen riders working now to manage the 165,000 head at VRP.

“We can’t meet our needs, find the people we need in our feedlots.”

The company also needs farm workers for its crop operations.

That shortage has led her to access temporary foreign workers — people from other countries rather than people living a few kilometres away.

Farn said an orientation program and access to a counsellor help the business retain workers.

However, punctuality, a driver’s licence and access to a reliable vehicle are consistent issues for First Nations hires.

“There’s that part, and then there’s the alcohol and drug abuse,” said Farn.

“It’s not for us to judge, but I can’t hire somebody who comes to a job interview and isn’t in a full state.”

Shade acknowledges that licence and transportation issues are big.

“That’s true because on the reserve it’s almost like you don’t need a driver’s licence, as long as you’re on the reserve. A lot of kids grow up on the reserve, they drive to high school with no learner’s (licence). Once they leave, they just don’t bother to get a learner’s or a driver’s licence at all,” he said.

“They just don’t see a need, for some reason, until they actually move off the reserve.”

As for punctuality, Shade smiles at a reference to “Indian time,” a description of First Nations’ assumed disregard for being on time.

“That’s more of a cultural kind of thing. I know traditionally, they don’t really hold time. … They can be 30 minutes to three hours late.

“It’s hard for other people to understand. That’s something that’s never going to change with Indians,” he said.

Farn says the “I’ll get there when I get there” attitude isn’t acceptable when it comes to the needs of the business and the livestock.

“I have a lot of respect for them. We know if we can get past the cultural upbringing, if they can get past that … we’re going to have an employee forever.”

Lane One Owl, another VRP pen rider, is working again after being fired once for not showing up at work. Raised on the Piikani reserve near Brocket, Alta., he now commutes about one hour each day to the job near Picture Butte.

He acknowledges that punctuality is an issue for many people on the reserve.

“A lot people go through everyday struggles and stuff happens and sometimes you’re late, or you can’t make it to work that day. I think a lot of people are capable of this job. It’s just all in their mindset, I guess.”

It may be surprising to some that First Nations people often see the world off-reserve as a foreign place and sometimes a hostile one.

Tyson Blackwater, a mature student at Red Crow Community College on the Kainai reserve, said he has experienced it firsthand.

“A lot of our people are discriminated because they are looked upon as a drunk or a person that’s suffering from drugs or something like that,” he said.

“When I go out and try to apply for a job, they kind of give me this attitude. It’s like I’m an alien to them, more or less.”

Shade said he suspects non-native people stereotype aboriginals because those they are most likely to see on the streets are those with alcohol or drug addictions. The result is that other First Nations people tend to avoid public places, even shopping later in the evenings when there are fewer people around.

“It’s almost like they hide,” said Shade. “It’s almost like you get embarrassed to go into public sometimes.”

That sense of alienation contributes to people’s reluctance to leave the reserves, and heightens feelings of anxiety or shyness, said Levi Little Mustache.

He is the youth programs officer for the Blood Tribe Employment and Skills Training program, and got his university degree and his job while living all his life on the reserve.

When he moved to nearby Lethbridge a few years ago, it was difficult, he said.

“I totally felt the disconnection from the land. I missed it. I longed for it. I felt bad for taking my kids, moving them to Lethbridge because now they’re kind of feeling it.”

Beyond that, racism and the fear of discrimination are real as well.

“Honestly, we don’t want to focus on it, but the racism and the stereotypes are still there. Like I said, I don’t want to focus on it, but I guess you have to acknowledge that it’s still there.”

Little Mustache said employer initiatives to help First Nations navigate the transition from reserve to the wider world would help attract more of them to agricultural and other jobs.

His work involves assisting young people to access education and the job market, and he thinks more aboriginal people will be available for employment in coming years.

That is partially due to a greater push by the agricultural industry to publicize the range of opportunities in the field. Several programs on the reserve itself are geared toward that goal as well, he said.

Chelsea Low Horn is among those who have embraced agriculture as a career choice. She expects to graduate this year from the agriculture science program at Lethbridge College. In her first year, there were only six indigenous students but that number has doubled since then, she said.

Lack of confidence is a factor, however. So is the fact that First Nations people tend to start families at a younger age so time and economics enter the picture.

“I have seen those barriers and feelings of discrimination. But it’s all up to yourself to decide what to do with it,” said the married mother of three who now lives in Fort Macleod.

“You can either overcome it or you can let it just keep dragging you down.”

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  • Agman2018

    If places like VRP farms put half as much effort into hiring and maintaining aboriginal employees as they put into bringing foreign workers here, they wouldn’t have an employee shortage. Perhaps if Canadians of any background, including aboriginals, had any hope of career advancement they may be more likely to stay. As a person who has worked for years in the feedlot sector I can say with some confidence that the best way to get ahead at VRP farms is to speak fluent Spanish. Qualifications are optional.

    • Monkeeworks

      How do you maintain an employee?

      • Agman2018

        Many ways. Simply speaking English instead of Spanish is one such way. Offering housing to all help as opposed to just foreign workers. Simply treating all of your employees the same instead of allowing a two tier system with foreign workers at the top. Offering the same interest free loans to the Canadian employees. Allowing new Canadian hires to use company horses. Many many things could be improved. Perhaps if you thought of it as employee retention instead of maintenance.

        • Monkeeworks

          I admit I do not know anything about language or horse loans or the things you mentioned. I do know if a person wants a job they do not dictate to the company they want to work for. No one in this world is entitled to anything. You want the job then you take it with what they offer. In return your employer pays you a wage. I have always used places I didn’t care for as stepping stones. Take what they offer, learn something while looking for a better place to work. You are working, earning a wage, learning and gaining experience. Not many places offer you your tools to ply your trade for them. I would think horses come under that plus a horse is a pretty personal item. Would you want a good horse to work off of or some nag that bolts at a flutter?

          • Agman2018

            This is where the problem of foreign workers begins. It allows a company to keep artificially low wages and lower working standards then elsewhere. Let’s use the good horse that you mention at the end of your comment. For a young person just starting out are they going to be able to afford the 3 or 4 thousand for a good horse? Don’t forget you need at least two horses to work these jobs. So maybe they could get away with riding the companies “nags” until they had some bankroll. Many places will, in fact, help out with your tools as an entry level employee. I’m certainly not saying they can’t use these places as stepping stones in their own careers. I am saying if the companies took a good, hard, honest look at themselves and the working culture they promote, they would find an amazing difference in the amount of employee turnover they see. You want to honestly help aboriginal people break into the feedlot industry? Make a point of treating them with the same respect you show the Mexican labourers.

  • John Fefchak

    In the early years of the Maple Leaf hog processing plant in Brandon, MB., the plan was to supplement the needed work force with the First Nations people. A good plan, but it didn’t prove successful. The employee turnover rate has been estimated at over 100%. Now through the years, both Maple Leaf Foods and HyLife at Neepawa, has turned to offshore workers as their main workforce.

    • Harold

      We have two very different belief systems whereby they are in a natural conflict. The aboriginal hold onto the nature system and we hold onto the capitalist system. The capitalist system is highly dependent upon punctuality and high production and earnings whereas a naturalist system is not. The naturalist is “off the grid” living. If any of us display otherwise in a capitalist system we are often times fired and left out of a job. The Article along with your comment explains this fully. Said differently, aboriginals live, are raised in a socialist environment and the others in Canada live, and are raised in a capitalist environment. The Constitution of Canada is the roots and is responsible for creating both systems and its natural and conflicting circumstances. A treaty is socialism, democracy is capitalism, and they are naturally in conflict when placed side by side. This is believed to be the two separate cultures as is indicated in the article; are they two cultures – two cultures of what; the belief in money? Socialism and socialists by their very own nature give themselves permission to steal from those representing Capitalism and capitalists. The NDP are socialists and they by nature also routinely steal from those of Capitalism and capitalists; Socialism despises Capitalism – Aboriginals despise capitalism and you can see the connection and theft.

      [On a side note, this is not to say that Capitalists do not support social programs because they always have and they always do but they perform directly and do not perform as wasteful Government and its governance. The government builds loyalty through punitive taxation whereas the Capitalists build loyalty by providing or funding (donations) to public services and support.]

      However, it is unfortunate that these identifying characteristics are being inappropriately called racism and discrimination when in fact they are only the differences in social constructs between the two when identifying their conflicting natures; this was also displayed in the Article. We in this Country are in great need of a discussion about what racism and discrimination truly is and means, because now a days, all meanings have gone off the rails.
      Firing a person for the lack of punctuality and loyalty or wrongful behavior can be shouted out as racism without any embarrassment for saying such a thing, and so forth in likeness. Our society has truly lost the ability to feel any appropriate shame when due.

      In the history that we did not have, had there never been such a thing as treaties, what would Canada have looked like today and what would the aboriginals be saying? I would think that they would be asking me if I needed a Job, as would the rest of the people in our society because we would have progressed together in kind. In contrast, if Blacks, British, French, Scots, Irish, were also given a treaty outside of our constitution, just what would Canada have looked like today; unified by diversification? Diversity, and the governments call to it, is just another unexplained word leading to another compounded Canadian societal cancer.

      Nonetheless, I would further say that what happened at Maple Leaf was a normal and expected event driven by our very own Canadian Constitution and not driven by Maple Leaf. Maple Leaf was forced to respond to the Canadian circumstances of our Government and governance. This is what I am seeing.


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