By Michael Woods, Postmedia News
OTTAWA – New data on Canada’s aboriginal people are likely to underscore the need to address education for indigenous youth, the country’s fastest-growing group, experts say.
Wednesday morning, Statistics Canada will release the first batch of data from the 2011 National Household Survey, including new information about the country’s burgeoning aboriginal population.
The data will include total numbers of First Nations, Metis and Inuit, including breakdowns by area, age structure and the living arrangements of aboriginal children. It will also look at the languages spoken by aboriginal peoples.
Statisticians caution there is no way of knowing how good or bad the information is from the National Household Survey. The voluntary nature of the survey, which replaced the once-mandatory long-form census, leaves gaps in information for some groups that tend not to respond to voluntary surveys – including aboriginals.
But experts believe the data should provide a fairly accurate broad-scale picture of Canada.
Canada’s aboriginal population grew by 45 per cent between 1996 and 2006, nearly six times faster than the rate of increase in the non-aboriginal population, according to the 2006 census, the last time the comprehensive study was done. Almost half the aboriginal population consisted of children and youths aged 24 and under.
Policymakers have grappled with that growth for years, as many reserves in remote areas face high school-dropout and unemployment rates. Many experts say the challenges brought by rapid population growth haven’t been fully addressed, especially in the realm of education.
“The size of the young aboriginal population should have everybody’s attention, because it’s so large and will probably continue to grow for another 10 or 15 years,” said University of Saskatchewan Prof. Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in regional innovation. “It means the demands on the federal government that flow simply from population size will be very, very substantial.”
The growth is due to the higher fertility rates among aboriginal women, but also due to an increasing number of people claiming status under the Indian Act and declaring their aboriginal identity. That trend has been accentuated by the grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement.
“Idle No More is really far more than a protest movement. It’s a declaration of aboriginal pride and cultural confidence,” Coates said.
The population surge presents both tremendous challenges and opportunities for federal and First Nations governments. Many resource development companies are pinning hopes on the rapidly growing population of unemployed, undereducated young people in Canada’s north – many of whom are aboriginal – to take key jobs.
“What stops them from getting the jobs is usually education,” said Frances Abele, a professor of public policy and administration at Carleton University. “The federal government has been a bit slow in figuring out how to improve access to post-secondary education for young people living outside metropolitan centres in Canada.”
Current programs are focused on specific skills training that matches people directly to jobs, especially in resource sectors, Abele said. For example, the latest federal budget introduced measures aimed at pairing young aboriginals on income assistance with much-needed skills training.
The skills-training effort should continue, Abele said, but “it’s not a way to provide a resilient workforce that could move from job to job.” That would require more money for kindergarten-to-grade 12 education on reserves.
“What we’ve tended to do is look at issues like educating aboriginal young people, particular in remote communities, as a cost factor rather than an investment factor,” said Paul Maxim, a Western University sociology professor who studies the demography of aboriginal peoples.
Maxim’s research has shown that the rate of return for every incremental year of education is much greater for an aboriginal person than for a non-aboriginal person.
“Maybe doubling or tripling the amount of money that we put into First Nations communities in the short term is a good thing to do, because the long-term return is greater than short-changing the investment,” he said.