Aboriginal economic development starts in kindergarten

When Elijah Smith and the leaders of the Council of Yukon Indians (as it was then) met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1973, they titled their report Together Today for our Children Tomorrow.

When Elijah Smith and the leaders of the Council of Yukon Indians (as it was then) met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1973, they titled their report Together Today for our Children Tomorrow. They took a long-term view, and recognized the importance of economic development.

“If we are to take part in the social, economic and political life of this country we must have a solid economic base,” they told Trudeau. (Too bad they didn’t spend more time explaining economics to Trudeau, who was about to embark on a decade of economic misadventures from the National Energy Policy to running up the deficit.)

It’s now 35 years later and a lot has changed. If Trudeau visited the Yukon today for one of his famous canoe trips, he would probably be impressed to fly on Air North (partly owned by the Vuntut Development Corporation), stay at the First Nation-owned Yukon Inn and boss deputy ministers around via his Blackberry on Latitude Wireless’ network (Dakwakada Development Corporation).

According to TD Economics, there are now about 27,000 aboriginal businesses in Canada, on- and off-reserve, as well as 50 aboriginal capital corporations and financial companies. This includes the First Nations Bank of Canada, with a branch on Quartz Road; Yukon First Nations have a 13 per cent ownership stake in the bank.

And in addition to large aboriginal corporations and community-owned enterprises, there are also more than 25,000 aboriginal-owned small businesses in Canada. The aboriginal entrepreneurs behind these businesses tend to be younger (typically 35 to 44 years old) than nonaboriginal entrepreneurs. Most of these businesses are profitable, according to the statistics, and 70 per cent of them have been in business more than five years.

Statistics show that the economic gap between aboriginal people and other Canadians has been closing over the last decade, but remains wide.

For example, from 1996 to 2006, the unemployment rate for aboriginal people in Canada fell nine percentage points versus only 3.5 points for nonaboriginals. But the aboriginal unemployment rate was still high, at 14.8 per cent in 2006, versus just 6.3 per cent for nonaboriginals. Yukon statistics tell a similar story. In 2008, the Yukon aboriginal unemployment rate was over 13 per cent while the average for nonaboriginal Yukoners was 2.7 per cent.

In terms of earnings, the gap also narrowed but remained significant. In 2005, median earnings in Canada for a full-time, full-year aboriginal worker aged 25-54 were $6,492 less than for nonaboriginal workers. This gap was down from almost $8,000 in 2000 but is still large.

A key driver of the gap appears to be linked to education. For example, 48 per cent of First Nation people in Canada do not have a high school diploma, according to Statistics Canada, versus a figure of 24 per cent for the nation as a whole. Furthermore, fewer then half of aboriginal people with less than high school are employed, while about 70 per cent of those with high school diplomas have jobs.

There is more to aboriginal unemployment than education, but if Elijah Smith and Pierre Trudeau sat down today to talk about the next 30 years they would undoubtedly spend a lot of time on the topic. The merits of college and university credentials can be debated, but starting your own business or getting a job is simply harder if you haven’t got a solid high school education under your belt.

And unlike the good news stories around successful aboriginal businesses, the education statistics are worrying.

According to data from the Yukon Department of Education, the average score from 2002 to 2008 in Language Arts 9 in the Yukon Achievement Tests for Yukon First Nation students was 51.5 per cent. For Math 9 it was 48.7 per cent.

This suggests that in any given year roughly half of Yukon First Nation students are failing Math and Language Arts in Grade 9.

In 2008, for example, 45 per cent of First Nation students scored more than 50 per cent in Math 9 versus 77 per cent of non-First Nation students. Only four per cent of First Nation students achieved “excellence” in Math 9, compared to 21 per cent for non-First Nations.

That school year, the average rural Yukon First Nation student missed 32 days of school, equal to about a month and a half of classes. Kept up from kindergarten to Grade 12, that works out to missing the equivalent of more than two full years of schooling. Of course, this is not just a First Nation phenomenon. Rural non-First Nation students missed an average of 26 days that year.

Unfortunately, while we have seen major strides in the past years in terms of First Nation

businesses and economic development, the statistics mentioned above do not show an improving trend in education based on Yukon data since 2002.

Yukon government and First Nation leaders have had education on their agenda for many years. A lot of studies, reports, conferences and new programs have been worked on since the Education Reform project was launched in 2005. The results do not yet appear to be showing up in the statistics.

Is it because change takes a long time in education? Maybe, but that wasn’t the experience with the Pathways program in Toronto’s poor Parkdale neighbourhood. That program showed significant improvements in dropping out, violence, college enrolment and teenage pregnancy within a few years.

Maybe we all, First Nation and non-First Nation parents and leaders alike, need to ask some tough questions about the direction and pace of change in the Yukon education system.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book, Game OnYukon! was just launched.S

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