The government of Canada doesn’t gather unemployment statistics on First Nations reserves because it says it’s too costly and it’s hard to find people to interview.

That means roughly half of this country’s First Nations people don’t show up in unemployment numbers. As a result, Canada knows very little about unemployment in areas where it has made job training and economic development a priority. It also means that the regional unemployment figures that play a role in whether employers can import temporary foreign workers are blind to the reality of First Nations joblessness.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Tammy Schirle, professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. “In Alberta they have these TFW programs that need local stats. They know nothing about what the unemployment statistics are on First Nations in the area. We don’t have that kind of information. So I think they do need to put a lot of resources into trying to make better efforts there.”

The Labour Force Survey is a key diagnostic tool, something akin to a heart-rate monitor. The survey, conducted monthly by interviewers across the country, delivers a statistically sound snapshot of the Canadian population’s employment levels and labour-force participation. It has the power to move markets, topple governments and influence all kinds of political and policy decisions. It reveals three crucial characteristics of the working-age population: the number of people employed, the number of unemployed and the number not in the labour force. Know those three things and you begin to know a lot about a community, the thinking goes.

Statistics Canada has never included reserves in the Labour Force Survey (LFS). The reason, it says, is that some reserves are remote and there are “serious challenges in contacting and interviewing potential respondents.” The data must be gathered every month in a seven- to nine-day window and the first interview, outside of cities anyway, is usually done in person. Ensuring that respondents can be contacted is crucial. Although only some reserves are considered remote, travel to those communities can be expensive.

But a recent Statistics Canada pilot project suggests those concerns may be overstated.

It found that the cost of gathering the data on a reserve was not much different from other remote areas that are included in the LFS. And since telephones are now used routinely for the first interview in cities, it’s not clear why remote communities are treated differently.

The pilot study was conducted on a reserve about an hour east of Calgary over a two-year period from 2010 to 2011. Statscan data collectors treated a First Nations community like any other in Canada, interviewing residents about their work status. The initiative was launched at the request of the Siksika Nation, which had a new economic plan and needed reliable data.

The pilot project found that people living on the reserve had an unemployment rate five times higher than the non-aboriginal population in Alberta: 26.6 per cent compared with 5.3 per cent. Even when broken down by education level, those residing on reserve were significantly less likely to be employed than non-aboriginals with a similar level of education.

It’s hard to know whether the same is true on other reserves. The next best information source is the voluntary National Household Survey, the widely criticized replacement for the mandatory long-form census. It describes the situation on only a single day in 2011 and many consider its results unreliable.

While the pilot data are enlightening, more significant is the question of whether it was possible for the researchers to reliably gather it. If Statscan extended the Labour Force Survey to reserves, it could prove an important measure for government training policies, such as the First Nations Job Fund and the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy. Training for First Nations, a young and growing population whose reserves are often close to resource projects, is considered a government priority.

It turns out that response rates on the reserve were slightly higher, on average, than in the rest of the province. But collection “proved more challenging than originally anticipated,” the study found. Interviewers required more time, which made the cost per interview comparable to the cost in any other remote area of Alberta, but about three times higher than in Calgary. Travel was slow. Plans to hire interviewers from the reserve went awry, workers had to buy work permits from the reserve, and interviewers had difficulty finding their subjects at home, the study notes.

“We have to remember that Siksika is not far from Calgary, so it’s not what we call a remote region, but there were still a number of collection-related complications,” said Jason Gilmore, a senior analyst at Statscan.

Over all, the project was declared a success, but the study concluded that a number of issues would have to be examined before a regular survey-collection process could begin.

When asked why telephone interviews weren’t used if cost was the prime reason for excluding reserves from the LFS, Statscan replied that personal visits “are the preferred method for collecting data in remote areas and First Nations communities.” That’s due in part to unreliable telephone and Internet lines in those communities as well language and other cultural barriers, Statscan said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 23 2015, 3:00 AM EST
Last updated Friday, Jan. 23 2015, 6:43 AM EST