Education system still failing natives

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Sat May 01 2010.   Rt.Hon. Paul Martin

The following is excerpted from the text of a speech delivered Wednesday in Toronto by former prime minister Paul Martin to the Inclusion Works conference on aboriginal employment issues:

On virtually every indicator from infant mortality to shortened life expectancy, Canada’s first peoples are too often the forgotten in our country and that’s wrong. It’s wrong morally and it’s dumb economically. Indigenous Canadians represent the youngest and fastest-growing segment of our population. Half are under the age of 24. In the next 10 years the number of young aboriginal adults entering the labour market is expected to grow by over 40 per cent, compared to 9 per cent for the general Canadian population. That means within a decade there will be a million aboriginal Canadians of working age.

At a time when Canada’s population is aging dramatically and we are staring down the barrel of new and tough competition from the gigantic populations of China, India and Brazil, it is clear we cannot afford to let one talent fall by the wayside, and yet that is what we are doing in the case of thousands upon thousands of young aboriginal Canadians.

By whatever standard one would apply, this is beyond comprehension.

Wherein lies the answer?

Well, ask the aboriginal leadership anywhere in Canada and they will tell you without hesitation that it begins with better education, and the good news when you look at the increased openness of Canada’s colleges and universities to aboriginal needs over the last decade is that you can see the progress made.

The bad news, however, is we have not made the same progress in terms of the nation’s primary and secondary schools.

There are two statistics that tell it all. First: 40 per cent of First Nations students living off reserve do not graduate from high school, let alone university. Second: that 40 per cent dropout rate becomes 60 per cent if they live on reserve.

Think what that means in the City of Toronto where, unbeknownst to anyone here, lives the largest aboriginal population of any city in the country. Think of what it means in large parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where Statistics Canada projects that in seven short years aboriginal children will account for up to half the students entering school.

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