In November, Canadians came face to face with the reality of life in some of northern Ontario’s most isolated communities. The shameful images of poverty and deprivation that were broadcast over the airwaves from Attawapiskat near the edge of Hudson Bay reminded us that, even though these troubled communities are out of sight, they should not be forgotten. Sadly, the deplorable housing conditions and crumbling infrastructure are a backdrop to the more fundamental challenges facing many Aboriginals in Canada today.
Over the past few months, we have grown accustomed to the economic and social plight of citizens around the world. The Occupy Wall Street movement that was conceived by Adbusters in Vancouver, first acted upon in New York, and subsequently played out across the world, is the most recent manifestation that inequality is undermining our social contract.
At home, the ongoing recession that first appeared in 2008 is a reality for hundreds of thousands of Canadians despite the relative stability of our overall employment numbers. One reason for concern is that the recession has produced a labour market that is relatively inaccessible to young people and especially to Aboriginal youth. Since First Nations youth make up the fastest growing demographic in Canada, their relatively low level of full time attachment to the workforce is especially distressing in light of their other living and psychological limitations.
However, our experience with addressing Aboriginal youth unemployment is a “wicked problem” that has confounded policymakers for decades. The evidence from many earlier youth initiatives shows that traditional income transfer instruments have not worked and are not the answer.
Aboriginal youth face a number of unique challenges. They suffer from a legacy of low high school completion rates and high suicide rates. These outcomes are not surprising given that research has found that many Aboriginal youth experience a sense of hopelessness for the future, are vulnerable to the effects of poverty, cultural and social alienation, and they live in a world characterized by violence and racism.
These problems are further exacerbated by a loss of identity, language and culture, low levels of educational achievement in job related fields, lack of parental involvement and support in their daily lives because of dysfunctional families and absentee parents.
The overall situation does not present an encouraging picture. In fact, the circumstances call for bold and innovative thinking that goes beyond the traditional social programming if we are to make a serious effort to decrease Aboriginal youth unemployment rates. As a starting point, we have not taken the problem seriously. Compare the lower levels of funding for job transition programs for recent immigrants to Canada with that dedicated for Aboriginal youth. What is especially frustrating is that the plight of Aboriginals is more extreme than that for newcomers.
No remedy is going to be a simple one given that the problem has been with us for generations and the causes are complex. However, a relatively recent study for the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in 2003 made a plea for greater investment in sport and art activities for Aboriginal youth in their own communities. Their argument is that these kinds of activities offer a number of benefits including that they provide some needed structure to young people’s lives, relieve the boredom of isolated living conditions, and encourage goal setting behaviour among young people
Although there have been several recent privately sponsored initiatives, most notably the one sponsored by former Prime Minister Paul Martin known as the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, the field is wide open for governments to take a leadership position in addressing this situation. A number of initiatives could build on the Senate report.
First, the federal government should make a commitment to construct on-reserve and urban youth community centres that are dedicated to encouraging Aboriginal youth to become involved in sports and arts activities. Second, build on the physical presence of these centres by training Aboriginals to manage these centres and serve as role models. Third, the federal government must get more aggressive about providing a more effective educational system that prepares young First Nations for the workforce by taking advantage of Canada’s leadership position in long distance education.
Finally, the private sector, especially those companies that earn their income from areas in the close proximity to First Nations settlements, must continue to expand their commitment to providing employment for Aboriginal youth. The Occupy movement has focused attention on the great disparity in wealth between the top one percent and the rest of the population. The plight of First Nations youth is a vivid and shameful example of the inequities that the Occupy Movement is so concerned about.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).