Canadians are increasingly aware of the challenges faced by the country's indigenous peoples and most agree it is time for action that will lead to reconciliation, according to an expansive new survey that gauges public opinion about First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
A quarter of the non-indigenous people questioned by the Environics Institute said their views of aboriginal people have improved over the past few years. But a smaller proportion – 13 per cent – said aboriginals get special treatment from governments, abuse their privileges, and take handouts rather than contribute to society.
The survey, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail in advance of the Wednesday release, examines the ways attitudes toward indigenous people have been shaped by media coverage of milestones such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's multiyear inquiry into abuses at residential schools.
Three out of four people surveyed said they pay at least some attention to news stories about aboriginal issues, and the percentage who say they pay a great deal of attention has increased significantly since 2009, climbing from 12 per cent to 22 per cent.
Many respondents expressed sympathy for what indigenous Canadians experience. Most said the challenges being faced are not of indigenous people's own making and three-quarters said they want to see social and economic disparities addressed.
"I can tell you that I have seen a shift. I have seen a growing awareness. I have seen a desire amongst Canadians to learn more," said Roberta Jamieson, a long-time First Nations activist who is president of Indspire, a charity that invests in indigenous education. "I think, though, that the depth of understanding is not as we would like it to be."
Many Canadians do not know the history of the relationship between Canada and its indigenous peoples, or that this country's first inhabitants have constitutionally recognized rights, Ms. Jamieson said. Even so, many Canadians are looking for practical, concrete ways to make a difference in the lives of indigenous people, she said. "They want to contribute to solutions."
The Environics Institute, which was founded to examine social policy issues not normally covered by public opinion research, conducted telephone surveys between Jan. 15 and Feb. 8 of this year with 2,001 Canadian adults and compared the results with previous surveys that were done in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. The findings are expected to accurately reflect the views of the broader Canadian public within a margin of 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
More than eight in 10 of those surveyed said they believe individual Canadians have a role to play in helping to bring about reconciliation, a sentiment that the pollsters say has increased notably since 2009.
"I actually think there is a lot of hope," said Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which was among seven indigenous and non-indigenous organizations that supported the survey. The poll suggests that, when it comes to aboriginal people, "Canadians want to learn more," he said. "But they still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the full extent and nature of the relationship."
A majority (87 per cent) of those polled agreed that more needs to be done to educate Canadian schoolchildren about the historical abuses and discrimination faced by aboriginals, and most (81 per cent) said funding for reserve schools should match what is paid in the rest of Canada.
When asked to name the biggest challenge facing aboriginals, the vast majority of all respondents cited their relatively poor standard of living. And an increasing number – 46 per cent, up from 36 per cent in 2004 – said they believe aboriginal people experience discrimination on a regular basis.
But there were significant differences across the regions.
Canadians living in Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces, the northern territories and British Columbia expressed the most consistently positive views. Respondents from those regions were far more likely than those from the Prairies to say indigenous people have unique rights as the first inhabitants of this country. In contrast, those from the Prairies were less likely to be sympathetic to the problems of aboriginals and to say that native people themselves are the main obstacle to their own social and economic equality.
Over all, however, indigenous leaders found the tone of the responses encouraging.
Isadore Day, the Ontario regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said he believes there is a growing group of Canadians who are raising questions about the indigenous experience and want to see changes.
"It's a positive time," Mr. Day said, "but it's also a time when we have to be very mindful of this becoming another discourse that doesn't go anywhere."
Todd Russell, the president of NunatuKavut, which represents the Inuit in southern and central Labrador, said he too has seen a greater awareness of aboriginal issues on the part of non-indigenous Canadians. But that does not mean that people look at the root causes, Mr. Russell said.
When it comes to the "big relationship issues" of indigenous rights, land claims or revenue sharing, people continue to shirk back, he said. In the end, it's not about money, Mr. Russell said, "it is about the relationship; it is about how one treats the other."
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story said 56 per cent of those polled said more needs to be done to educate Canadian schoolchildren and 75 per cent said funding for reserve schools should be increased. In fact, those numbers represented the respondents who strongly supported those views. In total, 87 per cent and 81 per cent, respectively, of respondents supported or strongly supported those views.