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Feds’ labour data shows wage gap for Indigenous workers

February 7, 2024

Canada’s National Observer: Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan launched labour data tool Equi’Vision on Friday. Photo from file by Carl Meyer. Listen to article

A new tool created by Ottawa to reveal potential barriers in the workplace shows a significant gap in wages for Indigenous workers. 

On Friday, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan launched a tool called Equi’Vision that reveals Indigenous workers’ mean hourly wage is about nine per cent less than non-Indigenous workers’ hourly earnings across Canada. Experts say the gap is evidence of systemic inequities. 

“I think anybody with a sane mind would agree that there should be no wage gap,” said Rodney Nelson, an Indigenous governance and economic development researcher at Carleton University. “I wish I had the magic bullet and answer to why, but I think it’s a combination of many different things.”

Each year, federally-regulated private-sector businesses with 100 or more employees must report equity data — like information about wage gaps and worker diversity — to the federal government. The data tracks the employment equity of four groups — women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and workers of visible minorities. Ottawa’s new webpage, Equi’Vision, compiles this data into graphs.

Equi’Vision’s most recent findings, collected in 2021, show nationally, Indigenous workers experience the second-largest wage gap of any group after women — who see a gap of about 10 per cent. In Ontario, Indigenous workers experience the largest hourly wage gap of any group, with a mean hourly wage of about 10 per cent less than non-Indigenous workers. 

The mean hourly wage gap between Indigenous workers and their non-Indigenous counterparts is not consistent across the country. In B.C., Alberta and Quebec, Indigenous workers are paid an average of about 5 per cent less per hour. The gap reaches 5.6 per cent in Manitoba and 8.4 per cent in the Yukon. 

The gap is highest in the Northwest Territories at 11.6 per cent and reaches 11.3 per cent in Saskatchewan. In all the Maritime provinces, it is nearly zero, and in Nunavut, Indigenous workers make 12.8 per cent more per hour compared to non-Indigenous counterparts.

Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the data shows not everyone in Canada has equal opportunities to earn a fair wage. “It’s a grim picture, and we need to do better, quite frankly,” she said. “[The data] is hopefully going to act as an incentive for employers to take that to heart and to find new strategies to actually encourage better employment of some of the groups that are under-represented.”

Colonial policies that limited access to land, capital and resources have created systemic barriers for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in the workplace. Nelson said other factors could add to a wage gap, including anti-Indigenous bias in the workplace and access to high-paying jobs. He said workers on reserves might not have the same resources as workers off reserves. 

“Almost every community has a gas station and grocery store. If [an Indigenous worker] is working there, would their wages be lower than if they’re working in downtown Toronto? Possibly, yes,” he said. “(Some reserves) just don’t have the funding or the ability to pay workers higher wages.”

He added some Indigenous people face challenges when they pursue college or university degrees. Nelson, who previously chaired Carleton University’s council to support Indigenous students, said expensive tuition continues to be a barrier to higher wages.

“There’s still students who did not have funding to come [to Carleton] and the funding envelope hasn’t really increased,” Nelson said. “Some communities are struggling. They have to choose people to go and tell others, ‘Sorry, this year I can’t send you. Maybe next year.’”

Students in remote nations and communities face further challenges, including a lack of funding and a need to travel for secondary and post-secondary education. 

Bruske said Equi’Vision could be a tool for employers, unions and governments to track their progress on labour equity. While she said there isn’t a simple solution to reaching wage equity, Indigenous members of the Canadian Labour Congress want employers and governments to address anti-Indigenous discrimination in the workplace, reduce barriers to education and create more transportation infrastructure between Indigenous communities and workplaces. 

“These are all issues we need to address if we want better outcomes,” she said. “It’s not just a one-quick-fix solution. There are many aspects that have to go into this puzzle in order to actually fix these problems.”

Nelson said to address the discrepancy in Indigenous workers’ pay, measures need to be taken to reduce wage gaps for all workers, including gender-diverse people, people with disabilities and people of visible minority groups. Intersectional workers, who fit into several of these groups, face further challenges achieving equal pay.

“Reconciliation and equity, diversity and inclusion need to be ingrained,” he said. “We can stop focusing on it when it’s not an issue anymore — and it’s still a major issue. Both [Indigenous] communities and businesses don’t know how to do it, so it’s a journey that we all have to take together.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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