This piece is co-published by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Future of Good.
Justin Wiebe is Michif (Métis) and grew up in his homelands in Saskatoon on Treaty 6 territory and the Homeland of the Métis. He is a member of the EleV team at Mastercard Foundation, where they work alongside partners to support Indigenous learners on their pathways through post-secondary education and onto meaningful work.
COVID-19 has brought up important questions about the future of work—which professions are essential to a functioning society, or how digital ways of working might soon become the norm, for instance.
But too often, these conversations about the future of work focus on the impacts of technology and automation and less on the impacts on populations who have been historically excluded from employment opportunities and economic self-sufficiency.
This includes ignoring the present and the presence of Indigenous people in the labour force, the real-life barriers we experience to career entry and progression, and our significant present day and potential future contributions to economic development and innovation, both for our Nations and Canada. The future of work conversation also fails to include an Indigenous vision for the future of work, one that values our knowledge and worldview, languages, and connection to our lands and waters. It is clear that the future of work needs to look a whole lot different than the present of work for Indigenous people.
Indigenous people are unemployed at a significantly higher rate than our non-Indigenous friends, relatives, and coworkers (or, given our current unemployment rate, our lack thereof). In parts of the country, such as Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, the differences in unemployment rates are huge. For example, in my home province of Saskatchewan, in January 2019 the Indigenous unemployment rate was 10% higher than for non-Indigenous Saskatchewanians. Across the board, Indigenous people are underemployed and underpaid. In some of the fastest growing sectors, such as the tech sector, Indigenous people are even worse off. The Brookfield Institute’s 2019 report Who are Canada’s Tech Workers? notes that Indigenous people are both underrepresented and underpaid relative to non-Indigenous counterparts in the tech sector, with Indigenous women being even worse off. In response to these gaps, the First Nations Technology Council have called for an Indigenous Framework for Innovation and Technology (IFIT) “to coordinate a comprehensive and collaborative approach to achieving digital equity, technological advancement, and economic reconciliation for Indigenous people in British Columbia.” This sort of framework would be hugely beneficial not just provincially, but nationally to tackle the digital divide and move the needle for Indigenous Nations and people.
Things are not a whole lot better in terms of education. Although education rates are improving for Indigenous people, a sizeable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education rate persists. According to research by the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, nationally, Indigenous high school graduates rates are 14.8 percent lower than for non-Indigenous people. For First Nations living on-reserve and Inuit, the gap widens to 30 percent. College and trades completion rates are much better, with Metis and First Nations living off-reserve completing college and trades programs at a higher rate than non-Indigenous folks, although they remain lower for First Nations living on-reserve and Inuit. Lastly, a gap persists, and even may be widening, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university completion rates with 13.6 percent of Indigenous folks completing a university diploma, certificate, or degree, compared to 32.4 percent for the non-Indigenous population.
The reasons for these very different realities are well documented. Grandmother Google has all the answers, but as a start Canadians should remember: removing us from our lands, attempting to disconnect us from our cultures, the residential school system, the Métis scrip policy, the 60s scoop, a broken justice system, underfunded education, inaccessible or culturally irrelevant training, or just plain old racism. All of which contributes to Indigenous people not having a fair shot in this country and runs counter to Canada’s self-concept as a fair and just country. This is not just something to feel bad about, it is also a missed opportunity. Failure to tackle these realities means that we all lose out on Indigenous-led innovation, creativity, and problem-solving from unrealized and unrecognized Indigenous talent. It also poses unnecessary costs to our health and social systems and harm to our communities. Having a job has major positive implications on one’s health and well-being; people who are unemployed or underemployed are more likely to have lower health outcomes and rely on the healthcare system more often.