The Aboriginal population: younger and more troubled

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
May. 08 2013. John Ibbitson, Ottawa

The dry data of the National Household Survey paints a grim picture of the challenges facing Canada’s First Nations youth. But what, if anything, can be done?

For the Conservative government, the answer lies in a new education act to address the inadequate quality of many schools on reserves. Whether this is the right approach – who it will help and how much it will help – will be the crux of a major national debate when the bill is brought before the House of Commons in a few months.

The median age of the aboriginal population is 28; for the non-aboriginal population it is 41. (Sixty-one per cent of aboriginal Canadians are First Nations; the remainder are Métis and Inuit.) Fertility rates among aboriginal Canadians are higher and life expectancy is lower than those of the broader population – two signs of poverty within a community.

Thirty-four per cent of aboriginal children live in single-parent families, which are often subject to greater income stress than two-parent families; for the non-aboriginal population, the figure is 17 per cent.

Most alarming, 48 per cent of all children in foster care are aboriginal – a statistic that Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called “staggering.”

Forty-nine per cent of First Nations people live on reserve, where education is provided by band councils using federal funds – and where other studies found that about 60 per cent fail to graduate.

“The survey brings home once again the huge challenges facing aboriginal kids that we’ve got to get our heads around sooner rather than later,” said Katherine Scott of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

Beyond the moral imperative of confronting this legacy, the federal government has identified the aboriginal population as a potential resource in combatting the job shortages that loom across the country. They are a labour force waiting to be trained for jobs that could bolster the economy and move many aboriginal Canadians out of poverty.

But for that to happen, this generation of young aboriginal children must receive better education and training – and that starts with improving the quality of schools on reserves.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt will introduce a First Nations Education Act that will encourage bands to pool their resources at regional or provincial levels, with native-run school boards setting curricula and allocating funding.

Three months of consultations between government and native groups are wrapping up, and the legislation is on track to be introduced this fall, with passage expected by the time the House rises next June.

The new system, once it is up and running, “will contribute to improving graduation rates, creating for aboriginals the same opportunities and choices other Canadians have,” predicted Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Mr. Valcourt.

But many chiefs are opposed to the plan, claiming they simply need more money for education – and for health care and housing – rather than another level of bureaucracy.

Internal conflicts among First Nations leaders, and the growing estrangement of that leadership from the Harper government, could poison any attempt at education reform, whether or not those reforms are worthwhile.

Beyond that is the truth that a lack of education is but one facet of the troubled lives of many aboriginals.

“In order for the numbers to change, the government is going to have to address root causes such as poverty and discrimination,” said Megan Yarema of the advocacy group Canada Without Poverty. “The focus cannot just be on education. It has to be broader than that.”

Otherwise, the chances remain excellent that the next census will show that First Nations people living on reserves are even more at risk.

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