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Why are First Nations excluded from the labour force survey? - By Sheldon Rosenstock

Posted: Sunday, September 5, 2021

Each month Statistics Canada publishes the results of the labour force survey which provides unemployment rates for each province. This telephone survey includes a target population of individuals fifteen years of age and over but excludes First Nations living on Reserves. Manitoba consistently places near the lowest in unemployment rates. This is an anomaly since Manitoba is one of the poorest provinces behind only the Maritimes in per capita income. The survey’s low unemployment rates for Manitoba do not reflect the harsh reality of high unemployment in Manitoba due to the exclusions of First Nations from the survey.

Statistics Canada does not provide a reason for the exclusion of First Nations in the labour force survey, but it may be due to the fact that the exclusion goes back to the start of the labour force survey in 1945. At that time unemployment in First Nations communities was high due to legal impediments to employment by the Department of Indian Affairs which regulated every activity through its non-indigenous Indian agents. Employment was kept at a subsistence level and consisted primarily of trapping, hunting, and small scale agriculture. Inclusion of First Nations in the first labour force surveys would have required travel by Statistics Canada employees due to the limited number of household telephones, however, this was not a justifiable reason for exclusion.

Since the 1970’s, employment has changed in First Nations communities due to increasing self-government and is more social service and education oriented. Most residents of First Nations have telephones and could be contacted easily. Including First Nations in the labour force survey would be of no direct financial benefit since no fee is paid to survey participants. However, s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination…” The exclusion of First Nations from the labour force survey is a form of belittling and discrimination and is damaging. The exclusion is a clear violation of the Charter. Also section 9 of the Statistics Act (1985), federal legislation which governs Statistics Canada methodology, specifically prohibits any form of discrimination.

The United States, which has a larger indigenous population than Canada, does not exclude Native Americans from their labour force survey. To do so would be a violation of the United States Constitution. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. This amendment also has been held by the courts to apply to the federal government of the United States. The sample survey measuring the national unemployment rate in the United States interviews 50,000 individuals of all races each month.

In statistical surveys, a larger sample survey results in greater reliability. If Statistics Canada refuses to include First Nations on the basis that the sample size of First Nations communities is too small to justify their inclusion, then an obvious remedy would be to take a larger sample. Since labour force surveys are conducted at call centers by telephone, the extra cost would be minimal.

Unemployment rates are higher in First Nations communities for a number of reasons including lack of adequate infrastructure, accessible potable water, lack of cell phone coverage and internet, and the poor state of the provincial roads leading to the First Nations communities.

Unemployment has an adverse effect on people since it results in a low income which is often inadequate for the necessities of life including good housing and sufficient quality food. Also, it costs more to live in a First Nations community due to a lack of retail competition. It is often difficult to travel to an urban center to obtain lower priced goods due to poor roads and the possibility of car accidents caused by the poor road conditions. The higher rate of suicide in First nations communities has been linked to food insecurity and poverty.

Equalization payments of about $2 billion are paid to Manitoba every year under the provisions of Section 36 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 on the basis that Manitoba is a “have not province”. The purpose of equalization payments is to enable the “have not” provinces to provide the same level of services including infrastructure as other provinces. Equalization payments to Manitoba, however, have done little to improve living standards and employment levels in First Nations communities. The Federal Government could transfer equalization payments directly to First Nations communities calculated on a per capita basis. However, since equalization payments are constitutionally protected, this would require the consent of the Manitoba government.

In Canada, laws or policies which violate the Charter of Rights can be justified legally on the basis of Section 1 of the Charter of Rights which states that rights and freedoms are not absolute but are subject to “such reasonable limits as prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” However, exclusion of First Nations in the labour force survey cannot be considered a reasonable limit because of the minimal cost of including First Nations in the survey. The right to equal benefits of laws and policies is fundamental to democracy and more important than saving the cost of a sample survey of First Nations.

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