Irving Shipbuilding is focusing on hiring aboriginal tradespeople as part of a signing and roofing contract for the National Shipbuilding Strategy.

Four Mi'kmaq workers were brought into the project as part of a deal with the Mi'kmaq Economics Benefits Office, the federal government announced Thursday at a Halifax news conference attended by more than 50 people, including two federal cabinet ministers, the deputy premier of Nova Scotia and several aboriginal leaders.

Irving won a $25 billion contract in 2011 to build Canada's next generation of warships.

Thursday's announcement was made in the Halifax Shipyard near where Arctic offshore patrol vessels will be built beginning in 2015.

The government said it's a collaboration with aboriginal communities to build and match skills to the shipbuilding project. Irving said it's the first step to hiring more Mi'kmaq tradespeople and other minorities. 

Good news for First Nations workers

The first four tradespeople will work with Flynn Canada Ltd. as part of the siding contract. They will be employed on siding and roofing projects.

Michael Carpenter is one of the new Mi'kmaq workers. Carpenter grew up in Glooscap First Nation in the Annapolis Valley and is a member of the Millbrook Band near Truro.

"Nine out of 10 of my friends aren't working," he said. 

Carpenter said as traditional industries falter, employment prospects are dwindling.

'All the things the older guys were moving away from and the young guys could come into, they're gone now'- Michael Carpenter, new Mi'kmaq worker

"Especially up in the Valley, there's nothing. The gypsum plant shut down. All the things the older guys were moving away from and the young guys could come into, they're gone now."

Bernard Valcourt, minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, hailed the news. 

"This clearly demonstrates what can be accomplished when the government of Canada, private industry and First Nations work together on shared priorities," said Valcourt.

Doug Flynn, president of Flynn Canada, was also at Thursday's announcement. His company employs 3,000 people nationwide, including 300 in Atlantic Canada.

As part of the bidding process on the approximately $10 million contract, Irving Shipbuilding stipulated sub-contractors actively engage and recruit First Nations workers.

With a shortage of skilled labour in Canada, Flynn said he's eager to tap into a new pool of trained employees.

"From what I can tell this is a great source for us, and we can provide possibilities for long-term employment for everybody as well. So I think it's a win-win," he said.

Slow but steady change

Also in attendance were Peter MacKay, Nova Scotia's federal cabinet minister, Kevin McCoy, the president of Irving Shipbuilding, and Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade.

McCoy anticipates the shipyard will hire more Mi'kmaq tradespeople trained in the 21-week program, but he declined to provide a specific target or give a current figure for the number of aboriginal workers in Halifax.

The company says it has been keeping the Mi'kmaw Economic Benefits Office of Nova Scotia informed of the skills it needs to allow the aboriginal agency to train workers that meet them.

Alex Paul, the office's director, said recruiting and training new workers is a slow process with a big payoff.

"The numbers aren't huge. But change in a province's labour force it won't happen in huge numbers," he said. 

"Eventually we'll get to where we want to be."

'We wanted this to be a reminder to all the other folks who want to do business with us on this contract, that this is a a great example of how to do business'- Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Shipbuilding

Paul said the Mi'kmaq employment requirements in the bidding process seem to be working. He says seven other companies contacted his office hoping to bid on the Irving contract. 

He said another training course for 12 new roofers is starting in Sydney in three weeks. 

Irving has put aboriginal employment requirements in all sub-contracts for shipyard modernization and construction of the Arctic offshore patrol vessels.

"We wanted this to be a reminder to all the other folks who want to do business with us on this contract, that this is a a great example of how to do business," said McCoy.

with files from the Canadian Press