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Fred Bergman, senior policy analyst with APEC, says closing the employment and education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples could bring a huge boost to the East Coast economy. (APEC) After talking a lot about immigrants in recent years, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council has turned its attention to another group with untapped economic power.

Indigenous people have the potential to be a major economic driver in the region, according to APEC’s latest report card.

"We have a very young, indigenous and fast-growing population in the region," said Fred Bergman, a senior policy analyst with the organization.

"Clearly, it’s not being engaged enough in the communities and the economy to the region’s benefit." High unemployment

About 129,000 people in Atlantic Canada, or six per cent of the population, are Indigenous, according to APEC, and about half are under 35 years old.

As of the last census, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people in New Brunswick was about 20 per cent, said Bergman.

That compared to 11 per cent for non-Indigenous members of the labour force.

"So you can see that huge gap," he said.

There’s also an education gap.

As of 2016, Bergman said about 11 per cent of the Indigenous labour force had a university degree, compared with 18 per cent for non-Indigenous people.

If those gaps were closed by 2031, the region’s GDP would increase by $1.1 billion, he said. The Grey Rock Casino is the centrepiece of the Grey Rock Power Centre, a 70-acre retail development that belongs to the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, one of the most financially successful First Nations in the province. (Julia Wright / CBC) If gaps were closed across the country, Bergman said, Canada’s GDP would increase by $36 billion.

Several players, including the business community, have roles to play to make that happen, said Bergman.

"They can access employees from Indigenous communities, they can buy supplies from Indigenous businesses," he said.

Governments can also do those things, said Bergman, as well as put money into training and skills development programs. JEDI agrees

Alex Dedam, president of the Joint Economic Development Initiative, says this is a perfect time for government and industry to try to increase the economic opportunities for Indigenous people. One group already working to close the gaps is JEDI, the Joint Economic Development Initiative, an Indigenous non-profit group.

President Alex Dedam said he "fully agrees" with APEC about the potential to double the current economic contributions of the Indigenous population.Dedam said his organization has been working to promote full Indigenous participation in the economy for 20 years."Training hundreds of indigenous peoples in key industries, such as information technology and trades, as well as supporting many Indigenous entrepreneurs and community economic development projects," he said. Could also use financing There are about 300 Indigenous-owned businesses in Atlantic Canada, said Bergman. That constitutes 1.3 per cent of small- and medium-size enterprises.Like all businesses in the region, they could use better access to financing, he said.The success stories include several resource-based enterprises — in fisheries and forestry, casinos , retail hubs , and off-reserve businesses owned by Indigenous people, such as Professional Quality Assurance, a software testing company, based in Fredericton.

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