New numbers highlight the critical role that advanced learning can play in improving the lives of Canada's indigenous peoples as First Nations leaders struggle to improve the quality of education in their communities.
A Statistics Canada study released Tuesday, which was based on data obtained through the 2011 National Household Survey, found that First Nations, Métis and Inuit women are less likely to have postsecondary degrees than other Canadian women – a fact that is hardly surprising, given that the on-reserve high-school dropout rate continues to hover around 60 per cent.
But the study also found that those indigenous women who do obtain a degree or diploma after high school earn, on average, slightly more than their non-indigenous counterparts with the same level of education.
"It's great news," said Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
It shows that the government "should lift the cap off postsecondary funding," said Mr. Bellegarde. "We have 10,000 students on the postsecondary wait list. Basically, we view that to get out of poverty, you need a good education. So start investing. That's the way forward."
The Statistics Canada study was made public on the same day First Nations education directors began a two-day meeting Ottawa to discuss ways to improve on-reserve education after failed efforts by the previous Conservative government.
Funding increases for First Nations schools have been capped by the government at 2 per cent for two decades, which the AFN says has left the annual base amount spent per First Nations student running thousands of dollars below what is spent on children attending provincially funded schools.
The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to remove that cap and invest $515-million in core annual funding for First Nations primary and secondary education – an amount that would increase to $750-million over four years. Mr. Trudeau has also promised to spend $500-million in education infrastructure on reserves and to invest $50-million more a year in postsecondary funding for First Nations students.
Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affair Minister, said the Statistics Canada study is exciting, but it is also something the government has known for some time. "When people get the opportunity for an excellent education, they do extraordinarily well," she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
The challenge, Dr. Bennett said, has been to ensure that indigenous girls and boys make it through high school so they can qualify to get into a postsecondary program. "We need to put our attention to all levels of this in order to achieve that kind of success that has been demonstrated in the report today," she said.
During an address to the First Nations education directors, the minister announced money for new school facilities in 20 First Nations across the country.
The Statistics Canada survey looked at the educational and economic status of Canada's indigenous women, including Métis and Inuit and First Nations, living both on- and off-reserve.
It found that in general, in 2011, those indigenous women who had attained university degrees were doing well both in terms of jobs and the amount of money they were taking home.
The rate of employment among First Nations, Métis and Inuit women who had at least a bachelor's degree was 81.8 per cent, compared with 79.5 per cent for other Canadian women with similar credentials.
And the earning power of well-educated indigenous women was also slightly higher than for non-indigenous women with postsecondary degrees. Indigenous women who were university graduates had a median income of $49,947 in 2011 compared with $47,742 for other Canadian women with the same level of education.
But indigenous women were less likely to have postsecondary qualifications than non-indigenous women. About half of all indigenous women aged 25 to 64 had a degree, diploma or certificate, compared with 65 per cent of their non-indigneous counterparts.
And poorly educated indigenous women were less likely to be part of the paid work force than poorly educated non-indigenous women. Just over a third of non-indigenous Canadian women without a high-school education were unemployed in 2011 – compared to 46.6 per cent of indigenous women who did not graduate from a secondary school.