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Canadians should thank the Idle No More movement for bringing critically important social justice, environmental and economic issues to our collective attention. To borrow the words of an Idle No More protester: "These aren't aboriginal issues, these are Canadian issues."

The concerns raised by the Idle No More movement are complex and mired in historical complications, but one fact is simple: All Canadians – not only those having indigenous status or who live on reserves – bear the tremendous cost of our unrealized national potential. According to the Centre for the Study in Living Standards, the cumulative economic benefit of closing the education and labour market gap between native and non-native youth by 2026 would be $400.5-billion in additional output.

To succeed in today's globally competitive world, Canada needs to develop and maintain the most highly skilled and talented work force possible, something we rightly work to achieve through progressive immigration policies. Yet it makes little sense to look for solutions abroad while squandering human capital at home. Just as we would never tolerate a $400-billion productivity gap in the mineral or oil sectors, we similarly can't afford to ignore the underutilization of a more precious natural resource – human capital.

At stake are not only the social and economic fortunes of the country's aboriginal population, but the economic potential of the labour market, which affects all Canadians. Left unaddressed, this human capital deficit will only grow, as native youth are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, the aboriginal population is projected to reach 1.4 million by 2017, and is a relatively youthful group. The median age of aboriginals is 28, compared with 41 among the rest of the population. Eighteen per cent of aboriginal people are between the ages of 15 to 24, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, which is the most recent census data released Wednesday.

Canada is at a fork in the road. The path that leads to economic and social prosperity for all requires a national commitment to double down the investment in native youth through education and job skills training.

This investment is not the sole responsibility of the federal government. It will require the combined efforts of individuals, private and public corporations, not-for-profit organizations and government agencies to make it happen. Failure to do so will cost much more in the long run.

Some change is happening. Indspire, a native-led organization whose backers include both private-sector companies and the federal government, is a good example of the potential for private-public partnerships to address the aboriginal education and labour gap.

This national charity is the largest supporter of aboriginal education outside the federal government. To date, Indspire has awarded more than $50-million in scholarships and bursaries to 14,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis students across Canada.

The success stories of individuals touched by this organization moved me to join the board 15 years ago, when I was chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Canada. Each year, Indspire honours the achievements of aboriginal people who have achieved success in business, the workplace and the community. People such as Gabrielle Scrimshaw, a young woman originally from Hatchet Lake Denuseline First Nation in Saskatchewan who received a 2013 Indspire Youth Award.

Ms. Scrimshaw is enrolled in the graduate leadership program with Royal Bank of Canada and is the founding president of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada.

Other public and private initiatives are helping to create opportunities for high-potential young people like Ms. Scrimshaw who are entering the work force.

The Canadian nuclear industry is a shining example of a sector that contributes greatly to the employment and training of the aboriginal work force. Aboriginal employees make up more than 45 per cent of the labour force in uranium mines, with another 800 aboriginal people, many of them youth, set to begin on-site training at Saskatchewan mines.

In the mining sector, the aboriginal community has taken the bull by the horns – with some First Nations communities partnering with companies to further economic opportunities for their residents. In 1995, Inmet Mining Corp. and the Mistissini Cree Nation completed the second mining agreement between a Canadian mining company and an aboriginal community. It outlined Cree employment targets and workplace and training supports.

More recently, Cree Nation communities have announced agreements with GoldCorp Inc. for the Éléonore gold property in Quebec, and Stornaway Diamond Corp. for the Renard diamond mine project, also in Quebec.

The mining sector has worked closely with First Nations communities; now other industries need to step up. We need to encourage more of this sort of private and public collaboration.

The Idle No More movement provided an important wake-up call. Now it is up to Canadians to take action to address this productivity deficit. It's not only an aboriginal issue; it's a Canadian issue. Let's tackle it together.

Paul Tsaparis is executive-in-residence at York University's Schulich School of Business, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Canada and a director of numerous private and not-for-profit boards, including Indspire.

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