Sask chiefs back new program for job training

First Nations chiefs gathered in Saskatoon Wednesday to talk about the new First Nations Job Fund.
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas said he hopes a new jobs program will lead to a drop in on-reserve unemployment rates. (David Shield/CBC)

First Nations chiefs from across the province gathered in Saskatoon Wednesday to talk about a new federal jobs program.

Dubbed the First Nations Job Fund, the $241-million program is designed to get more First Nations people off social assistance and into the workforce.

Over the next four years, the federal government plans to spend $109 million on training programs for First Nations people. It also plans to spend $132 million on preparing people for the job market — including literacy training, life skills courses and acquiring work equipment, such as tool belts and boots.

However, the program comes with conditions. If a First Nation signs on, the program becomes mandatory for anyone between the age of 18 to 24 who collects income assistance payments. Anyone who does not sign up may be cut off.

Many chiefs are still interested in the program, however, if the end result is higher employment rates for First Nations people.

"If we make it mandatory, we'd better make sure that the training and the opportunities and the education is there to support that mandatory program," Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas said Wednesday.

Thomas said high unemployment continues to be a major stumbling block for his First Nation. He said it's essential to get more people into the workforce.

"Once we get rid of this [unemployment], it just takes a huge leap into improving quality of life. Not only for our membership, but everyone in Saskatchewan," he said.

The federal government currently spends $838 million per year on on-reserve income assistance payments.

With files from CBC's David Shield