Hyer on the Hill – Aboriginal Youth Education – Week of Oct 4, 2010

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OTTAWA – Anyone thinking seriously about future of our region – and Canada – will start asking questions about the education of a key group of youth. And they would have to face some simple facts.

First: Canada’s population is getting older. Retirements will create shortages in many trades and professions.  Should governments plan for this?  Should they help youth get the education to do those jobs? Most of us see this as a government responsibility. The federal government can lead – if they choose to.

Second:  What major group of Canadians is growing the fastest?  Which has the youngest average age?  Which group has only about two-thirds as many members finishing a post-secondary education? Look again: a young population, growing fast, with people ready for post-secondary training.  This is the profile of Canada’s First Nations. Their median age is twenty-seven, compared to non-Aboriginals at forty.

Third:  One group of Canadians experiences more poverty, disease, unemployment and bad housing than the average. Should governments be helping these Canadians work their way over these problems?  Note that the question didn’t say “solve all these problems for them”. It also didn’t say “treat them like children who can’t manage themselves”. The question was about offering the support people need to improve their own situation. This group is also Canada’s First Nations.

OK, let’s review. We need more people with work skills. First Nations people need more education, training and jobs. And there are a lot of them, with more coming. Governments, and especially the federal government, should be able to put that picture together. Get those youth into training and education programs!

But the federal government doesn’t seem to get the connection.

For example, the Post-Secondary Student Support Program provides funds to send First Nations youth to post-secondary training and education. Lawyers, professors, carpenters, miners, teachers and nurses – there are First Nations people in all of those jobs. There could be more. So why is the Harper government weakening and underfunding this program at the time of greatest need and opportunity? Why keep First Nations youth out of school? We need to be helping employers and First Nations youth, not hindering them.

Here are some facts from a recent report on this:

•  First Nations poverty will cost Canada up to $11 billion per year by 2016.  Yet the current government is effectively reducing an investment known to rein in poverty.

•  Since First Nations took direct control of their post-secondary funding, graduating students increased dramatically from about 3,600 in 1977-78 to 27,500 in 1999-2000.

•  A cap was put on post-secondary funding in 1996-97.  Does this make sense for the fastest growing group of students in Canada?

•  Since that cap the number served decreased by 20% – from 27,500 down to 22,000 in 2008-2009. Over 10,000 students were denied access from 2001 to 2006.

Each year the number of potential students grows. Each year the costs increase.  As a result, the number of students who are denied help grows year by year.

Yet this government is ignoring their needs. Ignoring Canada’s need for more trained and educated workers. Ignoring the opportunity to help people improve their own lives. Ignoring the opportunity to reduce the need for costly social programs. And it’s ignoring the workforce needs of Canadian employers.

In treaties over a century old, Canada committed to supporting First Nations education. For these students, for employers, for taxpayers, and for the good of the Canadian economy, I will push the Harper government to make smart investments like these. This is about common sense. If First Nations youth prosper… it will help all of Northwestern Ontario to prosper.

Bruce Hyer, MP

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