Skip to main content

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report contains an eye-straining 94 recommendations for righting the wrongs done to aboriginals in Canada – everything from erecting monuments to creating a national holiday.

If governments and aboriginal leaders are really serious about reconciliation they should focus on just one big thing: closing the shameful educational gap between aboriginals and other Canadians. Of course, it's about fairness, equality and improving the lives of future generations.

But education is also a clear economic winner. Any money and effort Canada invests to improve the educational outcomes of aboriginal youth will pay off. Those payoffs will be higher GDP growth, lower unemployment, increased tax revenue and reduced demand for health and social services.

The potential economic gains are significant, and quantifiable, according to a study slated to be released later this month by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. The new research, recently previewed at the Canadian Economics Association annual conference in Toronto, found that closing of the education attainment gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians would generate a cumulative GDP gain of up to $261-billion (2010 dollars) between 2011 and 2031 and generate substantial savings for governments.

Improving the social and economic well-being of the country's 1.4 million aboriginals would pay huge dividends for all Canadians.

But it's a massive undertaking. The high school dropout rate for aboriginals is four times the national average at 41 per cent, and aboriginals have vastly lower test scores. On reserves, nearly six out of 10 don't finish high school.

The country can do better.

A model school project run by former prime minister Paul Martin's Aboriginal Education Initiative offers a glimmer of what's possible. The program, in place since 2010 at two Ojibwa First Nations in Southwestern Ontario, focuses on boosting reading and writing skills with the help of specially trained teachers, intensive oral language training and buy-in from community leaders. Once dismal reading and writing scores at the schools have soared to at, or above, the provincial average.

Results don't come cheap. Replicating the program at the most remote First Nations communities would cost up to $500,000 a year per school.

Numerous efforts are under way elsewhere to improve schools. In northern Saskatchewan, nine First Nations are working to create a unified school system. Some bands are seeking to close the gap by folding their schools into mainstream boards.

A key question is who should bear the cost. Education on reserves is a federal responsibility. Off-reserve, where most aboriginals live, is up to the provinces.

First Nations also need to take greater responsibility for fixing broken on-reserve schools.

One obvious source of funds is the vast natural resource wealth that exists in and around many First Nations communities.

The challenge is to make the best use of revenue from so-called "impact benefit agreements," signed between First Nations and resource companies. Evidence suggests that isn't necessarily what's happening now.

Most of the incremental revenue First Nations are generating from resource development, gambling and other ventures is being spent on band government, administration and economic development, rather than on more fundamental needs, according to new research by economists John Richards of Simon Fraser University and Mark Krass of the C.D. Howe Institute. Relatively little is being spent on education and health, based on a sample of audits from 130 First Nations in Ontario.

Without basic skills, many aboriginals will never be able to take full advantage of the available jobs and economic opportunity.

"You can't run good schools without some kind of professional structures," explained Mr. Richards, a professor of public policy.

Ottawa did have an education plan. Bill C-33 – the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act – would have boosted per capita spending on aboriginal students by as much as 25 per cent. But the legislation was shelved in the face of stiff opposition from aboriginal leaders.

Letting the problem languish again suggests the country will have learned nothing from the mistakes of the past, exhaustively chronicled in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 388-page report.

The best way to atone for the painful legacy of residential schools is to get education policy right. Do that, and all Canadians will share in the economic rewards.