Sage Shade rides his horse through the feedlot pens at VRP Farms, checking for cattle that need treatment. It’s spring and the pens are muddy from melting snow and ice, so the job of pen rider isn’t at its most pleasant.

Still, Shade says he likes the job and the variety it offers. He is one of 180 employees at VRP and one of only four who are First Nations.

Shade grew up on the Kainai (Blood) Reserve in Alberta’s southwest, a part of the Blackfoot Nation. It is the largest native reserve in the province, spanning 351,960 acres, and it is home to more than 12,000 people.

The unemployment rate is high among First Nations citizens here and across Canada. And the need for agricultural labour is also high. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council estimates there are more than 26,000 unfilled agricultural jobs across the country.

It begs the question: Why aren’t there more First Nations workers in agricultural jobs?

It’s a bigger question than one man can answer, says Shade.

There are historical, political, economic and cultural aspects.

“It’s a number of things. It’s almost like seclusion. Everyone is stuck on the reserve and they can’t get off. Drugs are a main thing. Alcohol is obviously a big factor.

“It’s kind of like going to another country, once you leave the reserve. That’s how a lot of people see it.”

In the case of VRP, the low number of First Nations workers is not from lack of trying, says human resources manager Jolayne Farn. Advertisements, postings on First Nations websites and participation in job fairs are part of those efforts but response is low.

“I am looking for pen riders every day,” says Farn. There are 38 pen riders working now to manage the 165,000 head at VRP.

“We can’t meet our needs, find the people we need in our feedlots.”

The company also needs farm workers for its crop operations.

That shortage has led her to access temporary foreign workers — people from other countries rather than people living a few kilometres away.

Farn said an orientation program and access to a counsellor help the business retain workers.

However, punctuality, a driver’s licence and access to a reliable vehicle are consistent issues for First Nations hires.

“There’s that part, and then there’s the alcohol and drug abuse,” said Farn.

“It’s not for us to judge, but I can’t hire somebody who comes to a job interview and isn’t in a full state.”

Shade acknowledges that licence and transportation issues are big.

“That’s true because on the reserve it’s almost like you don’t need a driver’s licence, as long as you’re on the reserve. A lot of kids grow up on the reserve, they drive to high school with no learner’s (licence). Once they leave, they just don’t bother to get a learner’s or a driver’s licence at all,” he said.

“They just don’t see a need, for some reason, until they actually move off the reserve.”

As for punctuality, Shade smiles at a reference to “Indian time,” a description of First Nations’ assumed disregard for being on time.

“That’s more of a cultural kind of thing. I know traditionally, they don’t really hold time. … They can be 30 minutes to three hours late.

“It’s hard for other people to understand. That’s something that’s never going to change with Indians,” he said.

Farn says the “I’ll get there when I get there” attitude isn’t acceptable when it comes to the needs of the business and the livestock.

“I have a lot of respect for them. We know if we can get past the cultural upbringing, if they can get past that … we’re going to have an employee forever.”

Lane One Owl, another VRP pen rider, is working again after being fired once for not showing up at work. Raised on the Piikani reserve near Brocket, Alta., he now commutes about one hour each day to the job near Picture Butte.

He acknowledges that punctuality is an issue for many people on the reserve.

“A lot people go through everyday struggles and stuff happens and sometimes you’re late, or you can’t make it to work that day. I think a lot of people are capable of this job. It’s just all in their mindset, I guess.”

It may be surprising to some that First Nations people often see the world off-reserve as a foreign place and sometimes a hostile one.

Tyson Blackwater, a mature student at Red Crow Community College on the Kainai reserve, said he has experienced it firsthand.

“A lot of our people are discriminated because they are looked upon as a drunk or a person that’s suffering from drugs or something like that,” he said.

“When I go out and try to apply for a job, they kind of give me this attitude. It’s like I’m an alien to them, more or less.”

Shade said he suspects non-native people stereotype aboriginals because those they are most likely to see on the streets are those with alcohol or drug addictions. The result is that other First Nations people tend to avoid public places, even shopping later in the evenings when there are fewer people around.

“It’s almost like they hide,” said Shade. “It’s almost like you get embarrassed to go into public sometimes.”

That sense of alienation contributes to people’s reluctance to leave the reserves, and heightens feelings of anxiety or shyness, said Levi Little Mustache.

He is the youth programs officer for the Blood Tribe Employment and Skills Training program, and got his university degree and his job while living all his life on the reserve.

When he moved to nearby Lethbridge a few years ago, it was difficult, he said.

“I totally felt the disconnection from the land. I missed it. I longed for it. I felt bad for taking my kids, moving them to Lethbridge because now they’re kind of feeling it.”

Beyond that, racism and the fear of discrimination are real as well.

“Honestly, we don’t want to focus on it, but the racism and the stereotypes are still there. Like I said, I don’t want to focus on it, but I guess you have to acknowledge that it’s still there.”

Little Mustache said employer initiatives to help First Nations navigate the transition from reserve to the wider world would help attract more of them to agricultural and other jobs.

His work involves assisting young people to access education and the job market, and he thinks more aboriginal people will be available for employment in coming years.

That is partially due to a greater push by the agricultural industry to publicize the range of opportunities in the field. Several programs on the reserve itself are geared toward that goal as well, he said.

Chelsea Low Horn is among those who have embraced agriculture as a career choice. She expects to graduate this year from the agriculture science program at Lethbridge College. In her first year, there were only six indigenous students but that number has doubled since then, she said.

Lack of confidence is a factor, however. So is the fact that First Nations people tend to start families at a younger age so time and economics enter the picture.

“I have seen those barriers and feelings of discrimination. But it’s all up to yourself to decide what to do with it,” said the married mother of three who now lives in Fort Macleod.

“You can either overcome it or you can let it just keep dragging you down.”

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