It’s time Canada realized its promise on partnership with indigenous peoples

Posted on August 10, 2012 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion-piece
30 July 2012.   Roberta L. Jamieson

One of the fundamental policy challenges for 2020 is how to create a Canada that includes indigenous people as a highly valued essential fundamental aspect of the Canadian reality. That is the kind of Canada in which indigenous peoples can realize our full potential by making significant contributions to our own communities, to Canada and to the world. Canada will be the richer for it.

If we are to create a Canada that includes indigenous peoples, we must dismantle the costly, dysfunctional, unproductive and firmly institutionalized relationship that holds indigenous peoples as well as Canada in its inflexible grip, and replace it with a healthy and mutually beneficial one.

Addressing this challenge will require Canadians to accept that the country’s fastest growing demographic group is indigenous peoples, who provide the answer to our looming labour shortage. Canadians must also appreciate their own identity as citizens of a nation with a strong indigenous history, an indigenous identity. The name of the country itself is indigenous, and so are the names “Toronto,” “Saskatchewan” and “Winnipeg.” This awareness is growing in some parts of the nation, notably on the Prairies, where the indigenous population is so visible and where past divisive approaches to outstanding issues related to treaty rights have been replaced with talk of all Canadians needing to see ourselves as treaty people.

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples set out an account “of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people that is a central facet of Canada’s heritage, of the distortion of that relationship over time, of the terrible consequences of distortion for aboriginal people—loss of lands, power, and self-respect.” It said the relationship “has long been troubled” and was showing signs of becoming even more troubled.

The commission hoped then, as I do now, that indigenous and non-indigenous people alike will take the urgently needed, decisive steps to repair the damage to the past relationship and go forward “on a new footing of mutual recognition and respect, sharing, and responsibility.” This will mean freeing Indigenous peoples from dependence on the institutions, constraints and resources of governments. This will require, as the commission realized, justice and generosity. This will also require restoration of fair measures of land, resources and power. In return will come the restoration of self-respect and self-reliance to replace the anger, despair and conflict generated by the current situation.

The royal commission proposed a 20-year agenda for change. It did not endorse “tinkering with the Indian Act or launching shiny new programs. It proposed, as I do, a fundamental change in the relationship, an embracing of Canada’s indigenous reality, to liberate the exciting potential for our mutual future.

That was 16 years ago. Yet, with a few minor exceptions, the royal commission report remains, 16 years later, unimplemented, little known and rarely discussed.

There are many fronts on which we must make strong courageous moves. The one in which I am involved is education and training—the process through which the rich potential of First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth is realized. Without dramatic improvement in the educational achievement of Indigenous students, the probability of success for other initiatives is reduced considerably. While many other initiatives must be taken, education is the essential element.

From my current work at Indspire (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation), I know that Indigenous youth are motivated by their own role models, particularly those Indigenous women and men who have achieved success and yet remain secure in their own identities, comfortable and confident in their cultures and historic roots. Our youth have had their abilities so severely devalued by the views held by the dominant population. Still today, myths and stereotypes lead them to believe they are inferior. The more role models we can create and celebrate to validate our true potential, the greater will be the number of youth who are liberated and empowered to follow their example.

While one can invoke arguments of morality and charity to justify ensuring that indigenous youth receive an education of as high a quality as that received by non-Indigenous youth, promoting parity in this generation will be based solely on economic benefits. Canada’s population of youth is shrinking, while that of Indigenous is growing more rapidly than any other demographic group. It is essential to Canada’s economic health that an educated, trained indigenous labour force be available to deal with Canada’s impending labour shortages. As much attention needs to be focused on Indigenous labour as is given to immigrant labour. It also makes no sense to have so many hundreds of thousands of people maintained in an increasingly expensive multigenerational state of dependency that is so destructive to health and well-being.

Tens of thousands of indigenous children entered first grade this year. If they and the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous students already in school are to be ready to become workers and entrepreneurs in the 2020s, a significant investment in their education must be made now. The vast majority of Canadian elementary school students graduate from high school. However, only about 53 per cent of Indigenous students, often less, are able to obtain this most basic requirement. Today, 28 per cent of Canadian students go on to receive post-secondary education, whereas only about eight per cent of indigenous students do the same.

We must take action to ensure that educational achievement rates for indigenous children climb to at least the level currently enjoyed by other Canadian youth. Every indigenous child must have access to an education that is simultaneously supportive of identity, culture and language while providing the knowledge and skills to contribute to the larger society; an education that offers access to high school credentials that are on a par with those offered by Canadian high schools generally.

Our teachers and schools need a massive infusion of resources to bring them up to ordinary current standards. They need a virtual network through which they can have the support of colleagues and experts and where they can share ideas and best practices appropriate to our communities. Such a network would link student with student, parent with parent, leader with leader, and so on. I also know from our work at Indspire about the importance of indigenous youth having their identity validated and valued in the curriculum, in the values they find in their educational experience.

We must, however, ensure that every Indigenous youth who wishes to seek post-secondary or training credentials has access to the resources to do so. Post secondary and training institutions must take steps to create welcoming, friendly and supportive environments to support the transition, cultural changes and adjustments faced by indigenous students.

All these things must be done simultaneously, and Canada is fully capable of this. We are talking about three per cent of the population! However, Statistics Canada says that percentage will almost double by 2031.

Canada cannot afford to squander this opportunity. Unless we make a serious and sustained investment in Indigenous education—on- and off-reserve—we will continue to witness the shameful and tragic results of which we are all only too painfully aware.

We will not have a productive partnership for 2020 unless Canadians want it to happen. Yes, political leadership is helpful, even necessary—but it is not enough.

The Canadian “mainstream” needs to see these changes not as acts of charity, but rather as acts in their own self-interest. A respectful, mutually beneficial relationship that involves a balanced sharing of resources will make it possible for Canada to benefit from indigenous knowledge about environmental stewardship, traditional healing and conflict resolution. Canada will be able to more fully realize its own potential when others around us find it in their interest to create such a space.

At some point, with the vital support of educated indigenous youth, our agents of change will be better able to realign the relationship of First Peoples with the rest of Canada. While much remains to be done, I am encouraged by the doors that have recently opened to a productive relationship that was exemplified by the apology for the residential school experience offered by the Prime Minister of Canada. Land settlements and agreements between governments and First Nations also point to future possibilities.

Change will require serious, sustained resources. The good news is that if we do it right, these resources will be an investment rather than an expense. Indeed, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards concluded in 2010 that if we closed the education and employment achievement gap between Indigenous and other Canadians, we would save more than $115-billion over 15 years while adding more than $401-billion to Canada’s GDP.

We must not be afraid to take a different approach. One theme of all the reports I have lived through—Hawthorn, the 1969 White Paper, the Penner report, the royal commission, the recent Assembly of First Nations/Indian Affairs joint report, and the Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on Education—is that indigenous people require a different approach, one that validates and respects the distinct and diverse identity of indigenous peoples in Canada, one that values indigenous ways of knowing and the systemic approaches this knowledge informs. One that is, above all, indigenous-led.

Look at the role models: the James Bay Cree and their development since the 1970s, the rebuilding of the Nisga’a, and the realization of the promise of Nunavut. When indigenous communities are once again in control of their own futures, where there is serious and sustained investment, we can demonstrate that when the doors open for indigenous people to succeed as Indigenous people, Canada as a whole is the better.

If we do not together create the transformation that is at once our imperative and our opportunity, Canada will not be able to afford the status quo we will face in 2020—will not be able to afford it economically or socially. If it is going to change, change must start now. From my work with Indspire, I have seen so much success that I no longer need to rely upon hope. I have full confidence that we can do this in our lifetime, in this generation.

Roberta L. Jamieson of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory served 10 years as ombudsman for the Province of Ontario and is currently president and CEO of Indspire (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation). A longer version of this article originally appeared in the IRPP’s special 40th anniversary issue of Policy Options magazine. 

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