Thank you, Madam Chair. Good morning, members of the committee.
First of all, I would like to acknowledge our local MP, Mr. William Amos. I'm glad to see you on this committee. Will has helped us out a lot with our first nation and other nations, so thank you.
To Mr. Vandal, who recently toured some Anishinaabe communities, thank you for taking the time to do that.
It is a pleasure to be here today speaking about these important issues. I am Anishinaabe from the community of Kitigan Zibi and director of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council. I have over 17 years of experience in upper management at both the community and tribal council level. During this time, I have directly experienced the challenges related to the retention of their staff and the building of their capacity. If you'll allow me, I'd also like to speak about the challenges of recruiting staff, which I feel is related to retention. I'll conclude by stating some of the initiatives that have been put in place by myself and the directors of the communities and tribal councils of Quebec.
In today's labour market, the recruitment and retention of qualified staff are quite challenging, and in first nations communities and organizations I believe this is amplified. My community is about an hour and a half from here and it's not an isolated community. It's very well developed. However, we have had difficulty recruiting for professional positions within my organization and the community. I have some recent examples. It took my organization about 16 months to recruit a new civil engineer when the former one retired. For my community of Kitigan Zibi, it took over two years to find a director of finance. In a smaller community that is isolated, the challenge to recruit is much tougher.
Today's employees tend to be more interested in a gig rather than a career. I have heard it referred to as the “quit economy.” In addition to a high starting salary and attractive benefits, they are looking for a work-life balance and possibilities to move quickly up the ladder. In our communities, it's rare that we can offer career advancement since there are so few rungs on the ladder. Due to being short-staffed, employees have to wear many different hats and often take on duties that are in addition to their job description. As such, it's hard to offer them work-life balance, as they're covering for employees we cannot afford to hire. When you factor in circumstances such as housing shortages, it can be very difficult to be competitive.
For certain positions, it is easier to recruit and retain employees generally. Clerical positions, receptionists and similar positions are still filled by employees who intend to stay until they retire, but in professional positions and those that are highly sought after, it's much more challenging to recruit and retain. At the upper administrative levels, such as the director general, the turnover can be astounding. Twice yearly, we have Quebec regional meetings of the DGs and at every meeting it is practically guaranteed that there will be a lot of new faces around the table. Although there are roughly only 30 communities that participate in these meetings, we've often had as many as six new DGs within a six-month span. That's not good for stability and development of the community.
Looking at the capacity side, oftentimes there are employees hired who do not have training in the field that you are hiring them in. Many of our students end up in general arts or social science programs for a variety of reasons. It's not a slight against these programs, as I believe that all education is worthwhile, and I myself have a bachelor's degree in social science, but what often happens is that the pool of candidates with post-secondary education is limited. Therefore, many times employees learn on the job and hopefully there is someone there to mentor them. Of course, there are professional positions where this is not possible, such as engineering, architecture, and so on, but in many communities, people are not working in the fields in which they studied. With recruitment challenges, this is reality and we have to put in place solid capacity-building programs.
I don't want to just come here and complain. I want to offer the solutions we have been working towards and offer suggestions.
Suggestion one is for the government to commit to the post-secondary program and unequivocally state that the program will continue to exist. For the past 15 years, we've heard rumours that the current post-secondary funding program will be abolished in favour of a loans-and-bursary system. I wholeheartedly believe this would be a mistake. Yes, I know there are problems with the policies and procedures affecting how the program is delivered, but we should be studying how to improve upon it rather than abolish it. I fear that if the program is abolished, many students will never go to post-secondary studies and the capacity issues within our communities will increase.
The reason it is important to state that you are committed to the program is that there are organizations interested in creating scholarships to encourage students to study in specific fields. However, we don't enact these scholarships, because we don't want to endanger the program.
In addition to my functions at the tribal council, I'm president of the native benefits plan, the largest self-directed first nations pension plan in the country. We've wanted to put into place scholarships that will encourage students to enter into the fields of actuarial studies, finance and investment. However, it was suggested that we hold off in case it harms the post-secondary funding program. This program does produce results and it needs to be preserved and enhanced.
Suggestion two is to enhance the tribal council funding program. I was very disappointed, concerned and even somewhat angered to learn of the huge injection of funds into the First Nations Financial Management Board, not because it went to them specifically, but because I insist that part of the funds to this organization would have better served the first nations by going to the tribal council funding program.
Part of our mandate is to assist with the capacity-building of the communities and provide them with advisory services to increase their capacity. The tribal council program funding was frozen in 1996 and then gutted in 2013, and it has severely limited our ability to assist our communities. The government committed to lifting the 2% cap on funding for community programs, but the tribal council has not received any indexation since 1996, let alone 2%. Our purchasing power is diminished on an annual basis, yet we are asked and expected to do more and more. Our communities need more support, but it’s a real struggle to give them what they need.
Meanwhile the FNFMB was granted $50 million over five years in the 2018 budget, and they will receive $11 million per year afterwards. The tribal council funding program has existed for many years and we accomplished a lot, but we cannot be an afterthought while investments are made into other governmental entities.
Suggestion three is to look at the investments made into the employee benefits program and see if the funding is adequate. If we want to recruit and retain qualified employees, we have to have competitive employee benefit packages.
In Quebec, we are lucky to have a defined benefits pension plan that is comparable to the federal government’s. However, the funding has been capped for at least 10 years now, and the number of positions that are funded is limited. There is only one other province in all of Canada that has a defined benefits plan, and that has to hamper the recruiting and retention efforts in other provinces.
Part of the equation of retention is attractive benefits, and a solid pension plan is one of the cornerstones. If you want to look at a model as to how this can work, I strongly suggest you look at what we have been able to develop with the native benefits plan.
Suggestion four is to look for opportunities where there is a shared need and benefit from the economy of scale.
Years ago, I applied for funds under the professional and institutional development program in order to set up a Dropbox that would contain administrative tools to be shared among the communities in Quebec. We collected job descriptions, employee contract samples, supplier contract samples, policies, etc., and uploaded them into English and French folders.
This year I applied for funding for new employee contracts and policies developed for drugs, alcohol and cannabis in the workplace and human rights accommodations. We're also developing investigation guidelines for employers, including checklists and templates for the various investigations they are expected to do, such as misconduct, harassment and violence in the workplace.
Again, these will all be uploaded into the Dropbox for us to share, and I think it would be beneficial if all regions had something similar that they could collaborate on. I think it’s important that the professional and institutional development program has some funds set aside for the development of regional tools.
Suggestion five is the creation of a mentorship/coaching program at the director general level. As I mentioned, the turnover at the DG level is extremely high due to a number of factors, including stress, capacity and number of responsibilities. We jokingly refer to the position as “the ejector seat”. Since we know there is a high turnover rate at that level, the program needs to be addressed. I think that at the tribal council level, if we had one resource per tribal council, that would be sufficient to assist the DGs, who would become more skilled, supported, less overwhelmed and more likely to remain in their position.
Suggestion number six is to encourage the development of distance learning programs for the communities. As I stated, I have a bachelor's degree in social science and a DEC, but I also went on to complete a master's certificate program with l’École nationale d’administration publique while I was working full time, and a lot of my peers did, as well. That helped us to enhance our skills.
I hope this gives you a better idea of the challenges we face in our communities, and I hope my suggestions prove useful.