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Editorials Despite the failures of Canada’s Indigenous policies, there are still reasons for optimism

Let us put aside, please, the allegation that the Prime Minister is a génocidaire. Even the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls wasn’t able to bring itself to fully buy into that claim; if it had, instead of inviting Justin Trudeau to the release of its final report, which it presented to him in a solemn ceremony, it would have asked that he be arrested and sent to trial in The Hague.

Let’s instead talk about the real issues, and the real challenges, facing Indigenous Canadians, and all Canadians. Unless we solve them, together, we are setting this country up for a future of failure and disappointment.

Indigenous Canada is the country’s fastest-growing population. In the decade ended in 2016, the Indigenous population increased by 42.5 per cent – more than four times the growth rate of the rest of Canada. About one in 20 Canadians is Indigenous, and they are on average much younger than the rest of the country.

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For a lot of Canadians, the term “Indigenous" is solely associated with First Nations reserves, many of which are marked by uninhabitable housing, boil-water advisories, isolation and economic marginalization. The reserves are also living under the Indian Act, which makes a bureaucrat at a desk in Ottawa responsible for problems on a reserve thousands of kilometres away.

The push for greater First Nations control over their own communities is well-founded. The impulse is logical and the goal is reasonable. First Nations reserves should have control over, and responsibility for, a long list of things. Autonomy is rarely a bad idea; neither is leaving decisions in the hands of people directly affected by them. It makes no sense for a higher government to micromanage, for example, the City of Toronto; the same should apply to First Nations.

But reserves are where the failures of decades of government policy are most apparent. The status quo isn’t working.

Living conditions: A shocking 44 per cent of First Nations people on a reserve live in a dwelling in need of major repair.

Jobs: Statistics Canada reported that, in 2011, the on-reserve employment rate for working-age people was less than 50 per cent.

Education: Among young people living on a reserve, fewer than half have graduated from high school, compared with 92 per cent of other young Canadians.

From crime to poverty, all sorts of bad outcomes flow from those figures. In a rich country like Canada, this shouldn’t be happening.

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But beneath the surface, there are trends setting the stage for a better future. Education is the key to opportunity, and between 2006 and 2016, all Indigenous groups made big educational gains. The number of working-age people with at least a high-school diploma rose sharply – from 35.9 per cent to 45.4 per cent for Inuit people; from 54.1 to 64 per cent for First Nations; and from 66.8 to 77.4 per cent for Métis.

In Manitoba in 2016, only 36 per cent of young people living on-reserve had completed high school – but in British Columbia, the figure was a much more hopeful 70 per cent.

It’s also important to remember that four out of five Indigenous Canadians don’t live on a First Nations reserve.

Instead, more than half of all Indigenous people live in a city. Winnipeg and Edmonton each have more Indigenous residents than all three Maritime provinces. There are more Indigenous people in Metro Vancouver than in Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories combined.

Canada’s future is as an increasingly urban country. It’s also where Canada’s Indigenous future will play out.

And while the quality of life for those Indigenous Canadians on average still unacceptably lags that of their non-Indigenous neighbours, there are signs of progress.

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For example, the employment rate for Indigenous people living off-reserve is 24 percentage points higher than on-reserve. And though the employment rate for an on-reserve, First Nations person with no high-school diploma is just 31.3 per cent, the employment rate for First Nations people with university degrees, living off-reserve, is 85.3 per cent.

It’s important to point out the positive, because some things are improving. But the commission is nonetheless right when it says Canada is still failing Indigenous peoples in critical ways: foster care, health care, trauma counselling and policing among them.

Canada can do so much better. Let’s start now.

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