Closing the Indigenous Education Gap in Canada

by Raywat Deonandan

The United Nations estimates that there are over 370 million indigenous people globally, spread across over 70 countries. In Canada, our approximately 3100 reserves are home to less than half of our 1.4 million Aboriginal citizens, who constitute one of the fastest growing and youngest segments of our society. Yet many Aboriginal communities in this country are characterized by deep poverty, high unemployment rates, substance abuse, suicide ideation, and domestic violence. In recent years, Canada has ranked between 6th and 8th on the UN Human Development Index, while our Aboriginal communities fall between 63rd and 78th. The federal government’s Community Well-Being Index shows that the gap has not changed at all since 1981.

These struggles are deterministically linked to a proportional underrepresentation of indigenous people in formal higher education, a trend recapitulated worldwide, as the global decolonization process progresses at variable rates. It is well accepted that formal education leads to better employment opportunities, improved coping skills, and better participation in social institutions: advantages largely denied many indigenous Canadians. Addressing this education gap is therefore a key component to any strategy for improving the health and prosperity of our indigenous population.

What is often overlooked when considering the so-called Aboriginal education gap is that improving the social and economic well-being of this population is also a sound investment in Canada’s economic future. Closing this gap is, in the words of journalist Barrie McKenna, “a clear economic winner. Any investment made by Canada to improve the educational outcomes of Aboriginal youth is likely to reap considerable dividends, including higher GDP growth, lower unemployment, increased tax revenue and reduced demand for health and social services.”

According to a 2010 study, improving indigenous learners’ access to higher education, and therefore improving labour market outcomes, would result in economic gains of the order of hundreds of billions of dollars by 2026. For this reason alone, devising policies to address first peoples’ underrepresentation in higher education is an essential task. It’s not just a moral directive, but a strategic one if it helps to assure that Canada thrives in the evolving global economy.

To better understand the challenges faced by indigenous learners in Canada, I engaged some of my students to examine the academic literature to identify relevant sentiments expressed by such learners in their own words. This was a study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as part of their mandate to explore the question, “How will Canada continue to thrive in an interconnected world and evolving global landscape?

We learned a few things about what keeps indigenous students away from institutions of higher education. Our top four findings were:

(1) The fear of losing their connection to their home communities and of being pressured to abandon their traditional ways of thinking and acting were major hurdles in indigenous peoples’ attempts to fulfill their educational goals.

(2) Much like non-indigenous students, Aboriginal learners feel a general sense of apprehension regarding moving away from home into a large urban community, as well as a concern for the loss of a social support network. In short, they worry about fitting into the new environment.

(3) Indigenous students suffer from an expectation that they will experience racism and exclusion on university and college campuses.

(4) Both financial limitations and family responsibilities present a powerful barrier preventing indigenous learners from accessing higher education, making this group quite similar to some other economically dispossessed communities in Canada.

We also looked at how some campuses have succeeded in at least partially addressing the aforementioned concerns. Here are four of the successful strategies:

(1) Campuses can better attract and retain indigenous learners by enhancing the visibility and substantive nature of both indigenous studies programs and of any existing indigenous presence.

(2) The creation of dedicated spaces on campuses, to which indigenous students can retreat to seek peer guidance and reflection, can be an effective strategy to enhance such students’ mental health and learning outcomes.

(3) The role of student organizations specifically dedicated to making indigenous students feel welcome and supported was stressed by several learners in the reviewed literature. They felt that such institutions helped to inoculate them against both social stress and fears of xenophobia.

(4) Governments can help by directing funding to scholarship programs, travel and accommodation assistance, and anti-poverty measures earmarked for indigenous advancement in education.

2015 study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards concluded that eliminating the educational attainment gap by 2031 will “boost Aboriginal employment by 90,000 workers, the Aboriginal contribution to GDP by as much as $28.3 billion or $672 per Canadian living in 2031, and Aboriginal average employment income by as much as $11,236.”

Moreover, better educated people have better health, are less likely to be convicted of crimes, are more likely to engage in civil society and democratic institutions, are better resourced to contribute to society as a whole, tend to have better mental health outcomes, and an overall better quality of life. These are qualities we want for all of our citizens, but especially for traditionally marginalized and beset indigenous Canadians.

The findings of our study echo the experiences of other OECD countries with sizable Aboriginal populations, Australia prime among them. That indigenous learners feel trepidation about finding social purchase on the campuses of higher education, while experiencing acute financial barriers to their participation, is neither shocking nor, frankly, unique to just indigenous people. But as a singular group, the potential for our native peoples to provide a measurable advantage to our global economic performance is preponderant, and we ignore this opportunity to our folly. Additionally, we seem to have reached a point in cultural history when the particular struggles and experiences of Canada’s native peoples are prominent in the public consciousness. It behooves us to act upon this fleeting social capital.