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Jennifer Ksionzena, shown in Toronto on Oct. 7, 2013, is in the Indigenous Studies program at the University of Calgary and works part-time at Nexen Energy. She plans to graduate next year.MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

The number of aboriginal people with university degrees has nearly doubled over the past decade, yet the gap in education levels between aboriginal and other Canadians has only grown wider.

Closing that gap is one of Canada's greatest public-policy challenges. New projections show that under current conditions the post-secondary attainment of aboriginal Canadians will not catch up to the rest of the population "any time soon." At best, progress is stagnant; at worst, it's showing alarming signs of decline, according to research by Catherine Gordon and Jerry White of Western University.

Much of that is due to the very high rates at which non-aboriginal Canadians are furthering their schooling. Already so far behind to begin with, aboriginals are struggling to keep up, even while making tremendous strides. However, it's still true today that nearly 40 per cent of aboriginal Canadians didn't finish high school.

"There's some incredible progress but it's still not enough, not nearly enough, especially with the demographic wave that's going to come," said Don Drummond, former chief economist at TD Bank and a public policy fellow at Queen's University. Mr. Drummond is one of the organizers of a conference on aboriginal education and employment in Toronto Monday that produced new research papers on the subject.

"We're only seven years away from 30 per cent of the school-age children in Saskatchewan and Manitoba being aboriginal. That's just absolutely staggering. I don't think we've reckoned with that, with how that could and should shape the economy," Mr. Drummond said.

"You can't pick up a newspaper without hearing this cry about the shortage of workers and we've got this huge demographic group that's not fully engaged and in many respects not getting more engaged. There's just something wrong with this model and a good part of what's wrong is on the education front."

Over the next 10 years, aboriginal young people will make up a significant portion of new entrants in the labour market. Whether they enter as skilled workers with post-secondary qualifications or as high-school dropouts will have an impact on Canada's economy, particularly in parts of Western Canada, where the labour supply is tight and aboriginal populations are concentrated.

The major issue is high school completion. As TD economists Francis Fong and Sonya Gulati put it in a research report released Monday, "there is a crying need to boost high school completion rates." Those who complete high school tend to go on to post-secondary at rates not that different from the rest of the population. But how to get there?

The challenges are complex. Funding for schools on reserve lags that of other schools by roughly 30 per cent. The legacy of trauma and substance abuse wrought by the residential schools continues to cascade down the generations. Poverty is endemic in many communities. The government is expected to table a First Nations Education Act when Parliament returns, but the proposal has met with resistance from some aboriginal groups, who say it was produced with too little consultation.

In many ways, aboriginal women are leading the charge in higher education. They are twice as likely as aboriginal men to have completed a university degree. What their patterns of schooling have shown, though, is that they are much more likely to obtain new diplomas and degrees through their 30s, rather than their early 20s. It's not uncommon for aboriginal women to start their families, then go back to school later.

The research also produced new insights into the fields of work of aboriginal graduates. Aboriginal university graduates are vastly overrepresented in education, health and the public sector, according to data pulled from the National Household Survey. That may not be a bad thing – those jobs tend to be stable and well-compensated – but it could be an indication of barriers to employment in other industries, according to the research by TD.

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