I work in Aboriginal recruitment at a post-secondary institution and every day I am met with the startling facts surrounding the state of Aboriginal education in Canada today. More than one-third of Aboriginal people haven't earned a high school diploma, and there are only eight percent of Aboriginal people aged 25 to 64 who hold university degree, compared to 23 percent of non-Aboriginals in the same age group who do.
There is a serious disparity between Native and non-Native peoples in Canada. What most Canadians don't understand is why these gaps exist ' and why they should be concerned about it.
By 2020, there is estimated to be a shortfall of one million workers in Canada, mostly in high skilled and knowledge-oriented occupations. The current labour shortfall has already impacted business operations and changed labour markets, and will increasingly do so. If there are no measurements to fill this shortfall, Canadian business and our economy could be seriously impacted.
There has been a huge push to fill Canada's employment shortage with an immigrant population but the Aboriginal youth could be a key solution. In Canada, the Aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada. It's growing at roughly twice the annual rate of the general population. In the next 15 years, more than 400,000 Aboriginal young people will reach labour-market age. These youth need to be ready for the job market, armed with an education that will enable them to participate.
Unfortunately, many of these youth ' particularly those who are growing up on reservations ' don't have access to standard educational opportunities. There are three kinds of First Nations education in Canada delivered to Aboriginal students. Federal schools that are controlled by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), provincial schools, and local schools operated by First Nations communities. Sixty-five percent of the 120,000 eligible on-reserve First Nations students attend the latter.
The issue with the majority of these schools is that they are grossly under-funded. Paul Martin has stated to the Toronto Star that the per capita funding for a First Nations child going to elementary or high school is anywhere from 20 to 40 percent lower than what non-native kids get on a per capita basis.
Many of these schools aren't able to recruit and retain qualified teachers to work on remote and rural reservations, even though teachers can teach without a Bachelors of Education (Bed). Because I work in recruitment for a university and visit many of these schools in Ontario, I have also witnessed firsthand how few of these schools offer the courses required for entrance into university. These students are already forced to only be able to be college ready, and never given the opportunity to challenge themselves with these courses.
Students that study off-reserve don't necessarily fare much better than those that stay on reserve. According to Statistics Canada, the range among major urban areas for Aboriginal youth school attendance is from 50-66 percent, compared to the non-Aboriginal youth who were at 60-70 percent. The main reason for dropping out as cited by Aboriginal male youth was boredom, and for Aboriginal female youth it was pregnancy or looking after children.
When Aboriginal youth are eligible for postsecondary school, they are often faced with a serious lack of funding. The notion that all First Nations students receive a free education is far outmoded and many, like myself, graduate facing high student loan debts just like most Canadian students. According to the Aboriginal People's survey, the number one reason why students don't finish their studies is related to finances.
Although education is a treaty right, there is a serious lack of post secondary education funding (PSE) from the Canadian government to make it accessible for all Native students. Federal funding is only increased 2 percent a year, while tuition is increasing at 4.4 percent a year and the number of eligible students has increased significantly due to population demographics and Bill C3, which granted previously ineligible youth Indian Status.
If our students struggle through their childhood to get to the point where they can go on to advanced training, advanced education, and then find that the resources aren't there for them to move on, the tragedy is so painful we simply cannot allow it to happen, (Excerpt from National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, No Higher Priority).
There are great prospects for those that do finish their postsecondary education; in many urban areas, employment rates among Aboriginal peoples with a university degree are even higher than non-Aboriginal people with the same educational level.
But the cost of not educating First Nations people in Canada is high. According to the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginal poverty will cost Canada up to $11 billion per year by 2016. This could be detrimental to the Canadian economy, especially when there will be an employee shortage and many industries will be struggling to look for skilled workers.
Many corporate leaders are on board. They realize that closing the Native education gap could add much-needed fuel to the economy. The long-term future not only of our Native peoples but of this country is education, said Purdy Crawford, a prominent businessman, to the Globe and Mail.
One solution is to bring distance education to reservations, so that community members can access education without leaving their families and way of living. The First Nations Technical Institute in Tyendinaga, Ontario offers a variety of diploma, degree and certificate programs, uses various delivery methods to reduce barriers to PSE, and has a 90 percent employment rate for graduates.
Resources and energy industries are also putting forth great strides to bring technical training to First Nations communities so that they can employ community members in their initiatives. In Timmins, Dumas Mining created a partnership with Wabun Tribal Council to prepare First Nations people with the adequate training for mining and they are guaranteed jobs upon completion. This is just one of many employment and education gap solutions created across the country.
If you are interested in creating your own solution and a recent BEd graduate looking to gain experience, why not consider teaching in a First Nations community? There are so many across the country looking for eager, bright teachers that are committed to understanding First Nations people and interested in social justice. Many can be found on Education Canada.
For those who are not on the teacher track, but would still like to contribute, I would suggest finding a local First Nations organization or agency and enquire to any volunteer positions that suit your skills. Many local Friendship Centers are the hub of First Nations communities and are a good resource at being able to find out what volunteer positions are available in your local town or city.
It is clear that the state of Aboriginal education is currently well below that of the national average. It does require that all Canadians understand the complexities and see the value in increasing Aboriginal education because it will not only benefit Aboriginal peoples and their families, it will greatly contribute to Canadian society and economy as a whole.
Photo: Volodymyr Kyrylyuk/Thinkstock