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d'arcy levesque

If current trends continue for aboriginal youth, Canada could lose billions of dollars in productivity.

Some aboriginal Canadians face an alarming reality. They make up the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population, and yet many still have significantly less education than the general population.

Recent studies, including a report from the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards, suggest that, if current lower educational trends continue for aboriginal people, Canada could lose billions of dollars in productivity. The centre estimates that more than $170-billion could be added to Canada's economy by 2026 if natives achieved the same education levels as other Canadians.

The statistics speak for themselves. The latest census data show that, in 2006, more than 40 per cent of aboriginal Canadians 15 and older did not earn a high-school diploma. This was almost double the percentage for non-aboriginal young people. And while 33 per cent of the non-aboriginal population had a university degree, the number for aboriginal Canadians was 12 per cent.

This education gap is something that should concern all Canadians.

Education is critical to aboriginal citizens for the same reasons it's essential for other Canadians: It inspires young people. It opens doors. It provides hope for a better future. And yet, without higher education attainment, many aboriginal Canadians will continue to face the prospect of lower incomes and higher unemployment.

That's the personal dimension to the education gap. But there are also broader implications to the country as a whole.

Statistics Canada has predicted that Canada will face a labour shortage over the next two decades as baby boomers retire and there are fewer workers to replace them. With almost half of aboriginal people under 25, native youth can help to fill this gap, but only if they're empowered with the skills and education to meet the need.

Certainly, the barriers are complex. Aboriginal youth face many challenges, including lower standards of living, social pressures, risk of exposure to addiction issues and the past legacy of residential schools. Solving these will require diverse approaches and the contributions of different groups in our society. And education must be part of the overall answer. Because as prominent aboriginal leaders such as Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, have pointed out, education is key to aboriginal and Canadian potential.

So what should be done?

As a society, we all share responsibility for helping aboriginal youth to bridge the education gap. The federal government has a leading role as the primary funder of schools in first nations communities. But corporations can also play a supporting role.

One example is investing in extracurricular activities that engage youth and help to foster their success. At Enbridge, we've made support for aboriginal education initiatives a priority. Enbridge's School Plus Program, established in partnership with the AFN, funds extracurricular and culturally enriched programs at first nations schools, as well as partnerships that benefit urban aboriginal children.

Our funding has been used to support numerous initiatives, including a Cree-language program at the Heart Lake First Nation in central Alberta, a photography project for children at the Montana First Nation in Hobbema, Alta., and a partnership with the University of Winnipeg that engages children from Winnipeg's inner city in hands-on science activities in a campus environment.

There are many ways that businesses can support the educational aspirations of aboriginal young people: through postsecondary scholarships, the purchase of school equipment and training and skill development programs; and by encouraging aboriginal students to find value in education and stay in school.

It's this kind of life-changing support we need to extend to all aboriginal students. And business is starting to take action. We need to partner with native leaders and others to provide more of the education resources aboriginals urgently require. We need to do our part to inspire a new generation of aboriginal Canadians.

This is not only the right thing to do - it's in our own best interest. Our future depends on investing in them - and in their education. Ultimately, supporting aboriginal education is an investment that will benefit all Canadians.

Today, our country celebrates National Aboriginal Day. This event is an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate the rich history and culture of first nations, Métis and Inuit people. It's also an important moment to reflect on what needs to be done to invest in their future.

D'Arcy Levesque is vice-president of public and government affairs at Enbridge Inc.

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