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Pave path to indigenous education

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Last week, Queen's University, the University of Winnipeg, the Assembly of First Nations and the Metis Nation of Ontario hosted a national conference on indigenous education. The conference focused on how higher education translates into jobs for indigenous peoples across Canada. It was an opportunity to review new research.

The data contained good news: Efforts at post-secondary institutions to increase accessibility over the past 20 years are working. Census data since 1996, and the more recent national household survey, show the proportion of the indigenous population with a post-secondary education has increased to 42 per cent from 28 per cent. Indigenous adults with a post-secondary education now significantly outnumber those who have yet to complete high school.

There was, however, a disturbing note. While the number of indigenous students participating in post-secondary education nationally is rising, there remains a 20 per cent gap when compared to non-indigenous participation.

That gap has grown from a much lower 15 per cent in 1996 and is expected to continue to grow. For every two steps forward, there is one step back.

It was more disheartening to learn the Prairie provinces are falling behind, with some of the lowest levels of participation, despite a higher proportion of First Nations and Métis people. Educational achievement is one of the principal means through which people gain good quality employment and life opportunities. More attention must be paid to investment in the education of indigenous people in Manitoba.

An analysis by TD Economics showed where the jobs are and where they will be in the future. Now, indigenous people with post-secondary education are highly concentrated in the education and public health sectors.

It is a good thing that indigenous people are working in health and education, but why aren't they finding more jobs in the broader labour market where there is strong growth potential? There is also an issue of indigenous people not reaching the top jobs in health and education -- for example, being an in-home caregiver as opposed to a physician.

At the U of W, we have recognized the education gap and tried to address the challenge with our community learning strategy, partnering with schools and indigenous community organizations and governments, to help set indigenous children and youth on a path to university early.

The community learning programs demonstrate the power of listening and working in partnership, of connecting in a holistic way with families, and of the critical nature of culture as a foundation for success.

If you don't know who you are, you can believe the negative perceptions about indigenous people.

This investment holds big rewards if we succeed. We are talking about the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada. As the rest of the population ages, we will need youth to fill future skills shortages. We must ensure that every single Manitoba youth has the exposure and access to post-secondary education.

Much of what the U of W has achieved has been done, in large part, through the generosity of private funders with some help from government, but we are limited in our capacity to scale up.

We are reaching thousands, but there is so much more need than we can meet. This requires strong commitment and ongoing investment by government.

In Ontario, the provincial government commits $26 million a year for indigenous education initiatives through its postsecondary funding for aboriginal learners fund -- a portion of it earmarked for indigenous programming initiatives at colleges and universities. What are the results? In Ontario, 48 per cent of the indigenous population has a post-secondary education compared to Manitoba's 34 per cent.

We have also recognized that the path to post-secondary for most students starts before high school. Nearly 43 per cent of the indigenous population in Manitoba has yet to finish high school. We need to ask whether primary and secondary education offer culturally relevant and respectful programming. There is a need for a holistic approach to the education system if it is to begin to address the variety of social, cultural and financial barriers to education.

There is opportunity for jobs and employment for indigenous peoples, but in many cases it is an opportunity tied to education. This must occur in a targeted, seamless, integrated way with a sustainable and transparent funding structure. We need to be willing to make the investment.


Lloyd Axworthy is president of the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A13

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