Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, honourable members, for this opportunity to be with you this afternoon.
My name is Susanna Cluff-Clyburne. I am the director of parliamentary affairs at the Canadian Chamber, and I wrote the paper we released in September entitled, “The Business Case for Investing in Canada's Remote Communities”.
I'm accompanied today by my colleague, Anne Argyris, who is the director of SME policy, skills, and immigration at the Canadian Chamber.
In a world with an increasing hunger for natural resources, the economic potential of Canada's remote communities is very much on the minds of Canada's businesses, governments, and community leaders.
Many remote communities face obstacles to attaining their potential, including distance from markets and the skilled workforce and critical infrastructure essential to business operations. An additional hurdle is the perception that public finances directed toward them are often considered to be subsidies rather than investments.
While governments must always be ready to play a role in the development of remote communities, looking at the challenges and opportunities of remote communities through a business lens can change the perception of subsidies, and more of Canada's remote communities can move closer to assuming equal economic footing with the rest of the country.
For that reason, GE Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce decided to work together to seek businesses' perspectives on what it takes to draw more sustainable private sector investment into remote communities.
During the first half of 2011, GE Canada conducted an extensive consultation process, hosting round tables with business people and community leaders in 11 locations across Canada. They also conducted an online survey. Altogether, they heard from approximately 500 stakeholders. At the same time, the Canadian Chamber reached out to members from our local chamber network and companies in the financial services, energy, mining, and construction sectors. We also spoke with other stakeholders, including those who manage infrastructure in remote communities, and with people representing remote communities during the planning, construction, and operation of major infrastructure projects.
We heard that after a business determines that a community offers a product or group of products for which there is a market, one of the first investment considerations is whether or not there is a skilled workforce available locally, or that can be attracted to the community.
Nearly all of GE's round table participants acknowledged the education issues in remote communities, and many raised per capita funding of education as a factor in the difficulties these regions face. When funding is geared to population size, a small community is at a disadvantage. In order to provide the kind of education that will equip people with the skills employers need and to attract business investment, new funding models need to be explored and pursued.
The quality and level of participation in education are often linked to the degree of social problems in a community. Ensuring a strong commitment to education will make a huge difference in a remote community. In addition, provincial curricula developed for urban areas may not address the needs of sectors and trades that are useful to remote communities. Building closer working relationships between governments and businesses in this area was seen to be a step in the right direction.
The common thread was that labour is a complex and often expensive component of doing business in a remote community. Many of those we spoke with suggested that public policies concerning education, training, and labour supply should be re-examined from the standpoint of ensuring their closer tailoring to the unique needs of remote communities.
As many of Canada' s remote communities are aboriginal, the failure of the education system to graduate aboriginal youth from secondary school and to give them the opportunity for post-secondary education and training are considerable barriers to economic development. As you all know, secondary school graduation or its equivalent is usually the minimal level of education required by employers.
There are complex reasons for why education and training programs fail to bring the desired outcomes. One is a lack of focus and flexibility rather than funding. Education and training programs developed to meet provincial, territorial, and--in the case of aboriginal programs--national goals may not be focused or flexible enough to meet the needs of residents of remote communities and their prospective employers.
In some remote communities, it may not be possible to offer on-site training; and mentoring programs may be the most effective way to convey the skills required for a particular type of employment. In communities where there is no prospect of a major extractive or construction project, training, perhaps delivered online, in skills that can be used to deliver services remotely--for example, accounting, or web and graphic design--might be more appropriate.
Often, there is no option for residents of remote communities other than to relocate, even temporarily, to an urban centre to obtain higher education and training. Governments need to do more to help people from these communities prepare for life in an urban setting. There needs to be effective transition support for those leaving remote communities to pursue studies in urban centres.
Private sector partners can help develop a skilled workforce. To quote GE' s report on its consultations, “...there may be a need for businesses and governments to work more closely together in planning education infrastructure, and perhaps in funding arrangements as well.”
Our paper mentions some best practices where government, business, and the community have worked successfully together with positive outcomes. Businesses themselves can play a significant role in developing a skilled workforce in remote communities by taking the time and making the effort to do more than what is legally required to consult with and engage local communities when planning, constructing, and operating major projects. Often, the knowledge gained from local communities can help projects proceed more quickly and inexpensively. Engaging communities early in a project can also provide the time required to leverage the potential of the local workforce.
While the challenges of bringing remote communities to their full economic potential can seem overwhelming, the opportunities for the communities themselves and for all Canadians are great. The private sector can play a significant role in making a reality what may seem unattainable if left to government alone.
Thank you. We would be happy to answer your questions.