First Nations grapple with population growth

A fast-growing, young aboriginal population should be a wake-up call to governments shaping policy for First Nations, Métis and Inuit in…

A fast-growing, young aboriginal population should be a wake-up call to governments shaping policy for First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada, says Darren Taylor.

From economic development to labour and housing, a burgeoning aboriginal population means governments need to be more responsive to the community’s needs, said Taylor, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief.

There should be more investment in trades training for aboriginal people to take advantage of a young population entering the workforce, he said.

“Everybody recognizes the fact that there’s a high demand for skilled labour and we’re bringing in immigrant workers to address the problem,” said Taylor.

“Rather than spending massive amounts of money on immigrants — to train them, house them — we should train the people that are here.”

About 25 per cent of the Yukon’s population — or 7,500 people — is aboriginal, according to 2006 census data released by Statistics Canada last week.

That is a 23 per cent increase from 1996.

The median age of Canadian aboriginals is 27 compared to 40 for non-aboriginals.

And previous projects estimated 40 per cent of Yukoners aged 20 to 29 will be aboriginal in a decade.

About 33 per cent of students enrolled in Yukon schools identified themselves as aboriginal in 2007, a three per cent increase from the previous year, according to the Yukon bureau of statistics.

With government emphasis on economic development and opening up the territory to non-renewable resource exploration, there need to be more discussions on how First Nations will be affected by that, said Taylor.

“The boom hasn’t happened yet, so there’s adequate time to commit more time and resources to First Nations — and all Yukoners — to prepare themselves and take advantage of the opportunities,” said Taylor.

Self-government agreements and approaching devolution have also put pressure on First Nation governments to focus on population growth.

Native population passed one million people in 2006, increasing from 976,306 in 2001 to 1,772,790 — a 45 per cent growth compared to eight per cent for non-aboriginals.

“We’re strapped,” said Taylor.

“We’re always reacting to government initiatives and our human resource capacity compared to other levels of governments is night and day. We’re limited.”

More education and training in governance and administration should be a priority to put government structures on par with others, he added.

First Nations people are five times more likely than non-aboriginals to live in crowded homes — defined as more than one person per room — and four times more likely to live in a home in need of major repairs.

In the Yukon, 22 per cent of First Nations lived in a home in need of major repairs, compared to 19 per cent in the Northwest Territories.

About one third of all aboriginal children live with one parent and another seven per cent live with a grandparent or other relative.

Slightly more than one half of First Nation children live with two parents, compared to 82 per cent of non-aboriginals.

Housing issues are a problem for most First Nation communities, and Tr’ondek Hwech’in is no different, said Taylor.

Money from the northern strategy housing trust has helped to deal with some mould and water issues, but it’s just a start, he said.

Currently, building requirements for First Nation housing sets square-footage and limits on the number of rooms in a home.

Criteria for building houses for First Nations need to be changed to handle the large aboriginal families, said Taylor.

“If we can’t build houses that meet the needs of our families, there’s a lot of turnover and we can’t get to the end of our housing list,” said Taylor.

“If we can build adequate homes that meet people’s needs, we avoid a lot of operations and maintenance costs, and the tenant would have more ownership in the home if they know they’ll be there for the long term.”