Education not enough to fix Native disparities

December 11, 2008
By Carlito Pablo

Anyone who has paid attention to the plight of Native people knows that their average educational levels are low compared to other social groups. The lack of schooling is often cited as one reason why many Natives are poor.Closing the educational gap between aboriginal and nonaboriginal peoples is often cited as a key step in bridging the income disparity
between them.

However, a working paper by two professors who are also brothers—one in Vancouver and the other in Ottawa—offers a sobering conclusion that this equation doesn’t seem to fit nicely.

In “Aboriginal Income Disparity in Canada”, SFU economics professor Krishna Pendakur and University of Ottawa assistant professor of public and international affairs Ravi Pendakur observe that even Native persons “who attain high levels of education still face substantial earnings disparity”.

“We find little evidence of high returns to education for Aboriginal people in any of our groups,” the Pendakurs write in the still-unpublished academic work. “Although Aboriginal incomes do rise with increased education, this finding suggests that even those Aboriginal people with high levels of education face considerable economic disparity.”

In a phone interview, SFU’s Pendakur argued that this finding has potentially significant policy implications.

“You might have thought that they [aboriginal people] were just part of the kind of bottom end or unlucky end of Canadian ethnic diversity,” Pendakur told the Georgia Straight. “But, in fact, they’re so far below the bottom end of nonaboriginal disparity that you kind of start worrying about aboriginal people, and it’s not worth worrying about anybody else. All policy approaches to inequality and poverty have to face aboriginal issues head-on.”

In a 2007 article that the Pendakurs cited in their working paper, the professors established that Canadian-born blacks and South Asians fare poorly in terms of income compared to other persons of similar education, age, and city of residence.

Canadian-born South Asian and black men earn 16 percent less than others, except Natives, while South Asian and black women face an income disparity of six percent and 12 percent, respectively.

In their new paper, the Pendakurs note that aboriginal people actually fare worse that South Asians and blacks.

For one thing, Native persons registered under the Indian Act earn 20 percent to 50 percent less than the rest of the population. Aboriginal persons who do not register under the Indian Act but self-identify as Métis, Inuit, or a member of a First Nation earn, on average, 10 to 40 percent less.

Those who neither register nor self-identify but who acknowledge aboriginal ancestry are the “least disadvantaged”, but they face an earning disparity of 10 percent to 20 percent, which is no better than South Asians and blacks.

“From a comparison of these findings, it appears that a little ‘Aboriginality’ is associated with very poor labour market outcomes,” the Pendakurs note in their paper.

They also warn that with Natives comprising the fastest-growing but poorest ethnic group in Canada, the disenfranchisement of aboriginal people “faces considerable risk of growing over time”.

Amidst all this, the educational prospects of aboriginal people continue to worsen.

Two months ago, the C. D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based think tank, released a paper about the growing education gap between aboriginal and nonaboriginal peoples, as reflected in the 2006 census.

Author John Richards, a professor in SFU’s graduate public-policy program, writes in Closing the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Education Gaps that although high-school graduation is almost universal among non-Native groups, 40 percent of young Natives aged 20 to 24 lack high-school certification. Among Natives aged 25 to 44, some 32 percent have not finished high school.

In his paper, Richards recalls that in November 2005, then Liberal prime minister Paul Martin concluded the Kelowna Accord with provincial premiers and aboriginal leaders. The succeeding Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to ignore this pact. One of the agreement’s stated goals was to close the aboriginal and nonaboriginal high-school completion gap in a decade.

However, Richards notes that based on the current record of Canada in kindergarten to Grade 12 school performance, the Kelowna Accord’s educational goal is a “chimera”.

Ken Clement was elected as a new member of the Vancouver school board in last month’s civic election, and he feels an added weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders.

As a trustee, Clement is expected to help ensure that the school district’s resources are managed well for all students and other stakeholders in the city. But there’s more. As a member of the Ktunaxa First Nation, Clement is also the first Native politician to be elected in Vancouver. As such, there is much expectation that he will provide a voice for Native people amid the widening educational gap between them and the non-Native population.

“We need to strengthen the aboriginal involvement in the school system,” Clement told the Straight as he prepared for the new school board’s inaugural meeting on December 8.

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