In a Canadian first, a publisher is producing a business textbook designed entirely for aboriginal students.
The guide, which will be used in high-school entrepreneurship classes, is based on the Ontario senior business studies curriculum. But from the images of smiling young aboriginal faces on the cover, to the case studies, to the easy-to-carry-long-distances soft cover, every aspect of the book was approached with one aim in mind: to show native students that business is a subject that applies to them.
It is one of only a few such initiatives that have been undertaken to make learning more accessible to first nations students, and observers are hoping that it marks the beginning of a new era in education.
First nations leaders have been expressing concern for years that school curriculums in this country are too eurocentric, said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
"This will be a major step in terms of rectifying that situation," he said. "There's no reason why it can't be applied across the board."
Canada's native communities continue to be plagued by much higher dropout rates than the general population, a trend that is linked to higher unemployment and lower incomes.
While some progress has been made, champions of a better education system say that the gap is not narrowing quickly enough, a problem that is hurting not only individuals but the national economy.
"We need a more innovative educational approach to close the gap," said Kelly Lendsay, CEO of the Aboriginal Human Resource Council. "Aboriginal people are now realizing that the solution to many of our social deficits is education and employment."
The textbook that will be unveiled Tuesday is being produced by Nelson Education and the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, as part of the latter group's Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program. The Grade 11 and 12 program is currently taught in 10 schools in Canada, but is gearing up for a broader expansion.
Other textbooks have been produced for aboriginal communities, or with aboriginal teachings in mind. For instance, McGraw-Hill Ryerson recently published Strength and Struggle: Perspectives from First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada as a supplementary resource for high-school English courses. And there are books on topics such as anthropology that were written by aboriginal authors.
But this textbook's creators say that the entrepreneurship manuals take the next step, seeking to make practical skills accessible. "Besides native studies textbooks and some English anthologies that would have short stories and Pauline Johnson poems and that type of thing, there really aren't any other teaching materials for mainstream subjects," said Carlana Lindeman, education program director at the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative.
"This is the first time, to the best of our knowledge, that anybody has done business courses for indigenous people written by indigenous people; we don't think anywhere in the world this has been done," said former prime minister Paul Martin, who initially funded the initiative himself, but now has backing from major banks and other corporations.
Closing the native education gap could add much-needed fuel to the economy, corporate leaders say. "The long-term future not only of our native peoples but of this country is education," said Purdy Crawford, a fixture in the nation's business community.
Don Barraclough, the founder of an aboriginal newswire business called NationTalk who grew up off-reserve in southwestern Ontario, said that there was a big push on getting people into business when he was growing up, but not a lot of support. "I had to just grab textbooks and read what I could," he said.
Forty-four per cent of aboriginal Canadians over the age of 14 had not yet completed high school in 2006, compared to 23 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians, according to a report by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. At the same time, 8.6 per cent of aboriginal people over the age of 14 held a university degree, while the rate in the non-aboriginal population was nearly three times higher.
In fact, the recent financial crisis highlighted the challenges that natives continue to face in the work force. Between 2008 and 2009, the average employment rate fell faster for off-reserve aboriginal people than for non-aboriginal people, according to Statistics Canada. As a result, the gap in employment rates between the two groups widened from 3.5 percentage points in 2008 to 4.8 percentage points in 2009.
Not only are more aboriginal Canadians jobless, they also tend to earn less. Those who worked full-time year-round earned on average $37,416 in 2005, $14,089 less than non-aboriginal workers, according to the report by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards. The authors attributed roughly 30 per cent of the earnings gap directly to differences in education levels.
"Education is the most critical issue facing aboriginal people, first nations in particular, in remote communities," said Charles Coffey, a former executive of RBC and proponent of aboriginal affairs. "In today's technology-driven society, one simply cannot survive without knowledge."