JMSB Panel Highlights Education in Embracing Indigenous Economies

How Uplifting Indigenous Business in Post-Secondary Institutions Helps Us All

From left to right: Ronald J. Abraira, Elizabeth Fast, Ghislain Picard, J.P. Gladue spoke at the panel. Courtesy Evan Pitchie

In a 2015 Aboriginal Economic Progress Report, it was revealed that Indigenous popu- lations are far more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and less likely to graduate university than non-Indigenous people.

J.P. Gladue, president and CEO of the Cana- dian Council for Aboriginal Business, explained that the total Indigenous Gross Domestic Prod- uct in Canada this year is $31 billion, with $12 billion coming from Indigenous businesses—significantly higher numbers than many Canadians would estimate.

This insight came from a panel on First Nations contributions to the Canadian eco- nomic sector, and the role universities play in shaping Indigenous communities, hosted by the John Molson School of Business last Thursday.

The panelists included Gladue, Elizabeth Fast, an assistant professor in the Concordia Department of Applied Human Sciences, and Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief of Quebec and Labrador.

In 2011, the Indigenous unemployment rate of 13 per cent was double that of non-Indigenous, at 6 per cent, in Canada. In 2010, the non-Indigenous annual median income was nearly $10 000 higher than for Indigenous.

The challenges are ampli ed for Inuit communities. The 2015 report said just 4.9 per cent of Inuit community members complete university, compared to 25.8 per cent of non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Gladue explained that much of the challenge lies in how First Nations policy is shifted between the provincial and federal governments. Nations often want to develop their own natural resources, but need to deal with red tape at various levels. He compared it to a game of ping-pong.

“So we want to go out to our traditional territories to do something and we go out there to the provinces, and they’re getting ready to hit us with the paddle. They do it quite successfully, saying that we’re the responsibility of the federal government,” Gladue said.

“When we’re coming towards the feds and say we want to do something in our territories, they hit us back by saying that it’s Crown land and, through land transfer agreements, the provinces manage those lands.”

Chief Picard—who had a front-row seat in the 1982 constitution repatriation nego- tiations—echoed those sentiments. While he praised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign ambitions to repair the government’s relationship with First Nations, Picard stressed the need to further engage policymakers.

“Anyone who’s aware and knowledge- able of the situation, of our communities, knows that we have so much, so much catching up to do,” he said.

The 2015 report said at the current rate, “the objective to achieve parity between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population may not be met [by 2022].”

Fast said that a lack of infrastructure often makes it hard for Indigenous students to pursue higher education. Many reserve schools have outdated technology and overworked teachers. One example mentioned: a reserve school where two grades were being taught in the same room. Because there were two teachers teaching simultaneously, students had a hard time paying attention and ultimately fell behind. Another challenge lies in cohesion among institutions in creating permanent educational courses.

“There’s a number of di erent colleges and college access programs—Dawson College has started their Journeys program—that helps [First Nations] students transition from secondary to post-secondary education,” she said.

“I think that we need to support one another in these programs and search for funding together to make them sustainable. Right now many of these programs are on a year-to-year funding model and there’s no long-term investment in them.”

Gladue, who has an executive MBA from Queen’s University, recommended the usage of successful First Nations enterprises as case studies in post-secondary business programs. He feels that enhancing Indigenous opportuni- ties bene ts all Canadians.

“Growing this economy together is absolutely crucially important not only for the health of our people, but for the health of this country,” Gladue said.