In my travels throughout Canada and abroad, I am often asked, "What does reconciliation look like?" as we try to repair the damage done by residential schools and other colonial policies that have had an impact on generations of Indigenous people.
It is a complex question, but if together we walk the path that was outlined in the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), everyone in Canada has the ability to answer those calls to action.
Primarily, governments must urgently address the many outstanding land claim issues as a start. Addressing justice and jurisdictional matters is also vitally important.
At the same time, additional steps can be taken, and my vision is to have all segments of society join with us in moving forward.
I draw inspiration from my mother who spent her youth in a residential school, separated from home and family and forbidden from speaking the language of the Anishinabek Nation. My mother not only resisted the efforts to erase her culture and traditions, she became a teacher of Anishinaabemowin which is one of the oldest languages in North America and I am proud to say that one of her students was my daughter.
Eliminating the gaps
Seven of the Calls to Action of the TRC deal with education and the federal government is called upon to work with Indigenous groups to develop "a joint strategy to eliminate educational and employment gaps" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
Much needs to be done to reach this goal especially with the huge discrepancy in education funding. According to calculations by one economist, students on reserve receive at least 30 per cent less funding than students under provincial jurisdiction.
In 2016, the National Indigenous Economic Development Board (NIEDB) released a report called Reconciliation: Growing Canada's Economy by $27.7 Billion, which shows the huge benefits that all of us can reap by improving academic outcomes and maximizing the contribution of the Indigenous workforce.
The report points out that "in 2011, the high school completion rate among Indigenous people was 18.5 percentage points below the non-Indigenous rate. The university completion rate was 15.6 percentage points lower among the Indigenous population, relative to non-Indigenous Canadians in 2011.
The analysis showed that closing these gaps and empowering Indigenous workers would boost Canada's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by about $27.7 billion or 1.5 per cent annually. This is especially significant given the aging demographics of the workforce in Canada and the fact that almost half of Indigenous people are under the age of 25.
Progress is being made in creating collaborative models that respond to unique education needs of Indigenous youth. In northern Ontario, the Anishinabek Educational Institute (AEI) is an Indigenous-run post-secondary institution which partners with colleges and universities to offer students degree and diploma programs, as well as apprenticeships. The curriculum was adapted to reflect community needs, cultural heritage, and the identity of Indigenous students.Another example is Six Nations Polytechnic, a unique post-secondary organization which is thriving in Canada's most populous First Nation. Students acquire employment skills and learn about the history, culture, and philosophy of the region's Indigenous people.
In addition, Six Nations Polytechnic had developed STEAM Academy, a secondary school where "students create their own pathways to high-skilled jobs," with emphasis on developing math, science, technology, and other skills. Students can finish with both an Ontario Secondary School Diploma and a two-year Ontario College Diploma.
Governments alone will not get us where we need to go in responding to the action items identified by the TRC. Whether it's corporate Canada, academia, health care organizations or our communities, there are things that we can all do to bring about reconciliation. As outlined in the NIEDB Framework for Indigenous Economic Development, businesses can provide Indigenous professionals and tradespeople with apprenticeship and work experience opportunities.
Volunteer or mentor
On a personal level, the average Canadian can make it a point to learn about Canada's true history and can learn through experience by volunteering at an Indigenous organization or community, starting a mentoring program or helping to create a business plan for aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs.
There also needs to be a concentrated effort on building knowledge and education of Indigenous culture and understanding the very sacred link Indigenous people have to the land. Education organizations must develop reconciliation action plans that outline steps to immerse both staff and students at every level in learning the true history to create cultural understanding.
Education, health, and business organizations must also look at ways to be more welcoming, engaging and representative of the Indigenous people who use their services. Some efforts may seem small but can make a big difference. We can never forget about the residential schools that affected so many Indigenous lives including my mother's and the generations that followed.
But together we can make the changes to improve the quality of life and bring prosperity to Indigenous communities which will also benefit the wellbeing of Canada as a whole.
About the Author: Dawn Madahbee Leach is vice-chair of the National Indigenous Economic Development Board. She also serves as General Manager of the Waubetek Business Development Corporation and is a board member of the Peace Hills Trust Company and the Northern Policy Institute.