Hope or hardship for native Canadians?

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Apr 14 2010.  By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Two studies with starkly different perspectives on Canada’s aboriginal people came out last week.

The first, The Income Gap between Aboriginal Peoples and the Rest of Canada, presented a predominantly bleak picture with a few pinpricks of light. It was released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The second, The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, was a hopeful profile with a few dark undertones. It was released by the Environics Institute.

According to the first report, aboriginal people continue to lag far behind other Canadians. The authors acknowledge that the gap has narrowed over the past decade. But at the current rate, they point out, it will take 63 years for the country’s indigenous people to reach parity.

According to the second study, aboriginal people “are forming vibrant and stable communities in Canadian cities.” They are becoming more confident, more comfortable in urban centres and more willing to build their future there.

Which is right: miserably slow progress or a promising generational shift?

Probably both.

One of the reasons for the apparently contradictory messages is that the two organizations measured different things.

The authors of the income gap study drew their conclusions from an exhaustive analysis of the 2006 census. They tracked the earnings and educational attainment of urban and on-reserve aboriginal people, taking into account age and gender, over a 10-year period. Then they extended the trend line into the future.

The Environics study is based on people’s attitudes. Using polling techniques, a team of researchers tapped into the experiences and aspirations of 2,614 aboriginal people living in Canadian cities. The organization’s projection flowed from their outlook.

A second reason for the discrepancy is that the two studies looked at different portions of the aboriginal population.

The income gap study included all aboriginal Canadians (at least those who identified themselves that way in the 2006 census).

The Environics survey was confined to the richest half of the aboriginal population.

A third factor that needs to be taken into account is the intent of the two studies.

The income gap analysis was designed to show that Ottawa’s assimilationist policies are holding back aboriginal people. Its authors, Dan Wilson, who previously worked for the Assembly of First Nations, and David Macdonald, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, used their analysis to buttress their political case.

The urban aboriginal profile was designed to find out whether indigenous people who choose city life are happy or homesick, whether they have sacrificed their identity or found ways to preserve it.

What is interesting is that there are several strong points of convergence in the two studies.

The income gap study shows that aboriginal people with university degrees are doing as well as their non-aboriginal counterparts, in the case of women even better. But they constitute a minority of the population.

The Environics survey shows post-secondary education is the highest priority for urban aboriginal people, but many can’t afford to go to university or have to quit for financial reasons.

The income gap study shows aboriginal people who live in cities earn 12 per cent more than those on reserves.

The Environics survey shows aboriginal people who have moved to cities see them as places of opportunity.

Both studies identify discrimination as a barrier to equality.

The income analysis says “bias and suspicion” are holding back aboriginal people. The Environics study says “there is a very strong perception” among those living in cities that they are negatively stereotyped.

For reasons of motive and methodology, one study highlights hope, the other underlines hardship.

Both perspectives are needed. Aboriginal people are striving to help themselves.

But the success of the minority shouldn’t blind Canadians to the needs of the majority.

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