If the future of a country is its youth, then Canada’s future is increasingly Aboriginal. Canada’s Aboriginal youth population is growing at three times the national average. It is and will be a force to be reckoned with. But whether these youth are a force for positive change and economic growth will be determined by the actions all of us take.
Improving Aboriginal education is not an issue we can ignore. It affects every Canadian. Aboriginal youth are the least likely to graduate from high school and are far behind Canadian students generally in terms of completing a post-secondary education. At the same time, our country is aging and record numbers of workers are set for retirement. Young workers are needed to fill these jobs and sustain the Canadian economy.
The hard-nosed economic facts are that unless we do something about education of Aboriginal youth, hundreds of thousands of youth will not be available to help Canada deal with this demographic crunch. Just as important is the impact that highly skilled and educated Aboriginal people can have on their communities, the much-needed engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs. In other words, inaction means human tragedy with significant economic consequences.
The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada are working together to advance a positive agenda. Canada’s universities and NAAF have identified the crisis of First Nations, Inuit and Métis education as one of the most compelling national issues facing Canada.
We recently held the National Working Summit on Aboriginal Postsecondary Education at Six Nations Polytechnic at Six Nations of the Grand River. We were joined by university and college presidents and staff, charities, Aboriginal organizations, private sector companies and Aboriginal educational institutes, all of whom are actively involved in this issue.
All of the more than 50 participants shared in the belief that as a country we can improve the results that Aboriginal Canadians are currently getting from the post-secondary education system. This will give them the skills to get good jobs and contribute to their communities. But we know that hope is not good enough.
Summit participants were asked to commit to actions. This commitment included some shared principles: to work collaboratively and share knowledge and to take a holistic approach to ensure more Aboriginal students start and complete their post-secondary studies.
Of course, it will take more than just the group we assembled at the summit to achieve the task ahead of us. We are calling on others to join us, to build on the work of this summit by investing time and money in their communities, so that more young Aboriginal Canadians can fulfil their dreams, so that our country can grow stronger.
There is a clear and compelling argument for the federal government to act. In spite of increased numbers of qualified Aboriginal students, the number of students supported by the federal Post Secondary Student Support Program is decreasing. In 1996-1997, the program supported 26,493. Ten years later it supported just 23,780 students.
According to the Assembly of First Nations, the national organization representing First Nation citizens in Canada, more than 10,000 Aboriginal Canadians were denied funding from the program between 2001 and 2006; and an additional 2,858 were denied aid in 2007-2008. Put simply, many qualified students are not able to continue their education.
In 2008 and again in 2009, the federal budget indicated the federal government’s intention to reform student financial assistance. More must be done to build on the work of the Prime Minister’s apology for residential schools. With more First Nations people than ever before wanting to attend post secondary education, Ottawa must do more to assist them.
Federal funding for Aboriginal post-secondary education has been inadequate for too long. We are calling on the federal government to increase student financial aid to First Nations peoples, to better support the college and university programs that help these students succeed and to work with those organizations who participated in the working summit to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal Canadians.
We are proud of what the summit achieved. We know it is only a start, but it is a strong one. Given the economic and demographic challenges facing Canada, fostering success of young Aboriginal peoples is essential. When they succeed, we will all benefit.
Paul Davidson is the president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Roberta Jamieson of president and CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.