Chief Lance Roulette isn’t the type who dances around an issue.
Roulette knows exactly how many residents of the Sandy Bay First Nation are dependent on financial help and why the number is a problem.
“We have 1,134 people on social assistance,” said Roulette, adding the figure includes 708 people who are 18 to 40 years old.
Sandy Bay is one of the largest reserves in Manitoba and has a population of more than 6,000. So, it’s possible that one in three, or one in four adults are on social assistance.
Roulette, Chief of the Sandy Bay reserve, is hoping to change those statistics.
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“We want to make sure we don’t have youth (that are) retiring right away and going on social assistance,” he said in March. “We want to find ways to motivate that self determination and self awareness.”
Roulette and other leaders in Sandy Bay, located on the west side of Lake Manitoba, have developed a program to get people off social assistance and into the workforce.
In the last two years, Sandy Bay built a meat-cutting school on the reserve. The project was a partnership with Hylife Foods, which operates a pork processing plant in Neepawa, Man., Assiniboine Community College in Brandon and the federal government.
The idea for a meat-cutting school was hatched in the winter of 2016 when Roulette spoke with MaryAnn Mihychuk, the federal minister of employment at the time.
“(With) Minister Mihychuk we began a dialogue on how we can get women more involved in the areas of trades,” Roulette said. “And how can we provide training so they can go directly into the workforce.”
Sandy Bay residents had a history of working at the Hylife plant in Neepawa, about 100 kilometres west of Sandy Bay, so creating a meat-cutting school was a logical fit.
Plus, training people to become meat cutters was a pragmatic choice because Canada’s meat processing industry has a severe and chronic shortage of labour.
A quick search of Indeed, an employment website, shows more than 200 posted jobs for meat cutters in Canada. The number of vacant positions at meat processing plants is much higher. A survey of the nation’s largest meat plants found a shortfall of 1,500 workers, the Toronto Star reported in November.
So far about 60 students have taken the two-month course at Sandy Bay, including a group that graduated from the program in late March.
“The plant and program is the only one of its kind on a First Nations reserve within all of Canada,” Roulette said in an email.
The first cohort of students was a group of 14 women. Subsequent groups have been a mix of women and men. Assiniboine Community College provided an instructor for the program.
Roulette estimated, as of mid-March, that 34 program graduates now have jobs.
A number of them work at the Hylife Foods plant and some are employed as meat cutters at other processing plants in Manitoba. Several have taken jobs at other reserves.
“The energy it’s generated in the community towards this occupation and towards employment, in general, has been very positive,” said Jeremy Janzen, senior director of human resources with Hylife, which processes two million hogs per year and employs more than 2,000 people at its Neepawa plant and at hog barns in Manitoba.
The presence of the meat-cutting school has boosted awareness of job opportunities in the meat industry, encouraging more Sandy Bay residents to apply for jobs at Hylife.
“We have hired over 60 people from the indigenous community in a little over two years (2016 until March 2018), with the majority of that group from Sandy Bay,” Janzen said.
Training First Nations people to work as meat cutters seems like a straightforward solution to two problems: a shortage of workers in Canada’s meat industry and persistent unemployment on reserves like Sandy Bay.
Connecting the two dots seemed obvious but the parties involved the project didn’t think in straight lines.
They went into the discussions with open minds and open ears.
“What has led to the success frankly … (was) just getting together and talking,” Janzen said, “rather than the federal government coming down and saying, ‘this is what you’re going to do, this is how you’re going to do it’ … or Assiniboine Community College saying, ‘the only way this will work is if we set up a school in Brandon.’ ”
Copying the Sandy Bay model may not work for other reserves and other agri-food businesses, but talking and building relationships can lead to surprising outcomes.
“Going to the community and having a lot of the meetings face to face … and really working as a team,” Janzen said, describing his relationship with Sandy Bay leaders and other partners in the project.
“If that’s happening then something like this can succeed.”
Transportation was also critical for the project. Hylife emphasized there should be transport from Sandy Bay to Neepawa.
There is now a van, operated by Sandy Bay, which ferries employees between the reserve and Neepawa.
A number of graduates live in Sandy Bay and work at Hylife, but other graduates of the meat-cutting school have moved away to take jobs in other towns and cities.
The reality that people will take training and then may leave the reserve has been a roadblock for other First Nations.
Debra Hauer, manager of labour market intelligence with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), said some indigenous leaders want to build up the capacity of their people so they can contribute to the community.
In other words, they don’t want to be a labour pool for Canada’s ag industry.
“I’ve been asked, ‘why should we work with you, CAHRC, if your purpose (is) to take people out of our communities to go work off-reserve,’ ” she said. “ ‘We need to look after our own people. We want them to be gainfully employed in businesses that help our own people.’ ”
Hauer heard that sentiment from a percentage of First Nations’ leaders. That perception isn’t representative of all groups.
Roulette is in the second camp.
He believes that Sandy Bay residents should look beyond “the reserve boundaries and (see) the opportunities that come with that.”
Graduates of the meat-cutting school may have left Sandy Bay for opportunities elsewhere, but that’s part of an independent life.
“What I get from it is the satisfaction of people being able to (take) ownership of their own actions, rather than relying on a system that doesn’t work for them,” Roulette said.
Having people leave, or take off-reserve jobs, is also critical for building relations with the rest of society.
The controversial court case in Saskatchewan this winter, where a farmer was found not guilty in the death of a young indigenous man trespassing on his property, has further damaged the relationship between First Nations people and other citizens of rural Canada.
More interaction between First Nations people and other Canadians, especially at workplaces, may help rebuild and restore trust.
“We need to find a way to bridge that relationship to (a) more healthier one, where we try and look at the more positive (parts) in life than what the … mainstream media has portrayed,” Roulette said.
Federal government funding and local support for the meat-cutting school at Sandy Bay ends later this year.
Roulette said he’s considering options for the site.