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Stefan Fournier, associate director for northern and Aboriginal policy for the Conference Board of Canada, says Canada’s Aboriginal youth are key to expanding the economy | Submitted Integrating Canada’s Aboriginal youth into the workforce could provide a huge boost to the country’s economy.

According to a National Aboriginal Economic Development Board (NAEDB) study, Canada’s Aboriginal youth could contribute $27.7 billion to the national economy annually. The report also found the Indigenous youth population as a whole is growing much faster than the overall Canadian average for that demographic. In 2011, the Indigenous youth population (those 25 and under) made up 46% of the country’s First Nations population, in contrast to the rest of Canada (29%).

This is particularly important when it comes to Canada’s resource sector, said Stefan Fournier, associate director for the Conference Board of Canada’s northern and Aboriginal policy. In late November, the conference board hosted the Our Land, Our Future: Indigenous Youth and Natural Resource Development Summit in Calgary.

Fournier said education is key when it comes to Aboriginal youth.

“The most common [challenge] you’re going to hear referenced is education,” he said, “and access to education and level of education particularly within the rural regions. That contextually presents a challenge that may not be there in the more urban environments.”

Fournier – who noted he’s not an expert on First Nations youth – said a focus on early childhood education and kindergarten to Grade 12 is needed. The high school completion rate for Indigenous youth is 18.5% lower than the rate for non-Aboriginal youth, and the university completion rate is 15.6% lower.

The B.C. government estimates there are 60,000 First Nations students in the province’s school system and 130 First Nations schools in 67 First Nations communities serving more than 5,000 students. In November, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation announced $790,000 in funding for three First Nations communities (Witset, Wet’suwet’en and the Ts’il Kaz Koh) for a variety of post-secondary and skills programs, including trades upgrading, business administration, trades and academic certification, university and college entrance preparation and driver’s licence training.

Fournier said helping local businesses establish and grow and connecting resource companies with potential First Nations workers are among the tactics that need to be used to create jobs for First Nations in general and Aboriginal youth in particular.

According to the NAEDB study, the average annual income among Indigenous people aged 15 years and older is 27.5% below that of non-Indigenous people, or more than $11,000 a year less in gross income.

Fournier said the conference board is working on an initiative around Aboriginal recruitment and retention. He added that Canadians need to change their perspective of First Nations communities.

“We have to stop thinking about the north as largely subsidized,” he said. “What we really need to be doing is thinking about how best to invest in the north.” •

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