Inspired by what has been called “the perfect storm that we are witnessing in politics, policy, and among the national Aboriginal leadership,” a June 2011 Queen’s University Conference on Indigenous Issues in Post-Secondary Education was conceived as an opportunity to respond to the “greatest social policy challenge of our time.” Speakers called for a paradigm shift from the thinking of the past, which has focused on deficits, discrepancies and problems, to a new approach that focuses on Aboriginal needs and successful approaches for change. What follows is adapted from the conference report.
The historical legacy of the residential school era within the broader context of colonization has had profoundly negative consequences for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. With many Aboriginal people living in third world conditions, the Aboriginal population is the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, growing almost five times faster than the rate of other Canadians. By 2017, the population of Aboriginal people between the ages of 20 and 29 will rise to 242,000, representing a 41.9 percent increase in a relatively short time, compared to a projected growth rate of 8.7 percent for the total Canadian population. The growth rate in Manitoba and Saskatchewan is even more significant: by 2026, Aboriginal school-aged young people will be close to 30 percent of the population in both provinces.
Commenting on the convergence of demographic growth and the socioeconomic realities experienced by Aboriginal peoples, Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), told conference participants that the status quo is not acceptable; she called it “a recipe for social disorder.”
In her June 2011 report, Sheila Fraser, former Auditor General of Canada, indicated that the situation for First Nations people is getting worse and warned that the education gap between them and other Canadians is growing. Census data indicate that the overall high school graduation rate for Aboriginal students is just 41 percent compared to 77 percent for the population as a whole, and the high school dropout rate among Aboriginal people is 22.6 percent compared to 8.5 percent for non-Aboriginals.
Problems related to high school completion and graduation present obvious barriers with regard to post-secondary attainment. Calling it “a story of missed potential and missed opportunity,” Roberta Jamieson, president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, indicated that 25,000 Aboriginal students reach the age of 18 each year. Yet there is an enrolment loss (in post-secondary education) of 17,000 of those students annually. One in five Canadians will get a post-secondary degree whereas only one in 33 Aboriginals will do so. Although Aboriginals are the fastest-growing demographic group in Canada, “they are unlikely to get out of high school, let alone post-secondary education.”
Notwithstanding the gaps and challenges, education remains the most powerful tool for improving the future of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Higher levels of educational attainment correlate directly to important socioeconomic indicators including improved health, employment, and general well-being.
Our society values education for the benefits it holds not only for individuals but also for communities and the country as a whole; it is a necessary tool to survive in the modern age. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards reported that closing the education gap between Aboriginals and other Canadians would result in savings of $115 billion over 15 years and that $401 billion would be added to Canada’s cumulative gross domestic product if Aboriginal education and labour market outcomes were to match those of the non-Aboriginal population. Moreover, it is ironic, if not perverse, that just as Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned about future labour shortages, there is a large and growing population of young Aboriginal people who could be an invaluable source of workers to meet Canada’s future labour market needs. Nevertheless, they are not as engaged in the workforce as they might be because they lack the required education.
Improving Aboriginal education, said Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf, “is, therefore, critical to the fabric of Canadian society today.” It is a moral and economic imperative that would benefit Aboriginal peoples and is in the interest of the nation as a whole. As National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo commented, “The failure must not continue. We cannot afford to lose another generation to poverty and despair.”
Important educational summits have taken place in recent months. Corporate Canada has recognized that it too has a role to play, and there has been a renewed commitment and consciousness on the part of Aboriginal leaders, communities and students.
While keynote speakers identified myriad problems, they also spoke of “the slow emergence of a new era in Aboriginal education,” or what Mary Simon called “the sound of the rolling thunder.” This new era began three years ago with Prime Minister Harper’s apology to and compensation for survivors of the abuses in the residential school system. Last year, the Canadian government endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the Association of Canadian Deans of Education signed an Accord on Indigenous Education containing important voluntary recommendations for post-secondary institutions; and in June 2011 the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations signed the Canada’First Nations Joint Action Plan.
Don Drummond and Bob Watts are Fellows with the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. The full report on the IPPSE conference is available on the Queen’s School of Policy Studies website: www.queensu.ca/sps