The Calgary Herald by Brynn Doctor 21 December 2012

Any time a discussion surrounding investing in the future of First Nations peoples arises, one of the first arguments made is that the aboriginal people should be doing for themselves, advocating for themselves, and should stop expecting handouts from the government.

Well, if the Idle No More movement isn’t a clear example that plenty of aboriginal people are trying to fight for their future and engage in meaningful and effective self governance, then I don’t know what is. The movement has sparked rallies across the country. E-mail, phone and social media campaigns have sprung up seemingly overnight. In fact, some are so committed to creating a better future for themselves, that a mother, grandmother and leader is putting her life on the line just to start a conversation.

Let me start the conversation with some numbers.

In February 2010, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards released a report entitled Investing in Aboriginal Education in Canada: An Economic Perspective. This report took a hard look at the state of aboriginal youth, both socially and economically. The conclusion of the research was this: If the education and labour market outcome gaps between the aboriginal and general Canadian population are completely closed by 2026, the cumulative benefits for Canada are estimated at $400 billion. At total of $179 billion of that can be attributed directly to increased educational attainment within the aboriginal population, and the cumulative effect on the federal government’s balance sheets is an estimated $115 billion.

This report makes it clear, however, that the only way to attain this level of success is by addressing both the educational and social issues that are facing the aboriginal population in Canada. These issues are not isolated, and must be dealt with in tandem in order for real improvements to take place.

Aboriginal youth under the age of 30 are the fastest growing segment of our population. These young Canadians are the individuals most capable of counteracting the projected labour market shortage we will be facing in the next 20 years and the youth who have the most potential to ensure the future of Canada is bright and that our economy keeps growing.

So many people seem unwilling to listen to any discussion involving investing in the future of our aboriginal nations, stating that this is a problem for aboriginal communities to deal with, and that the rest of Canada shouldn’t be trying to fix aboriginal issues. My response is this: Aboriginal issues are Canadian issues. The long-term social and economic success of Canada is intrinsically tied to our aboriginal peoples and the success of aboriginal peoples requires addressing both social and economic issues.

At the cornerstone of both social and economic success is education. As someone who works in aboriginal education, I can state with 100 per cent certainty that educational barriers cannot be successfully overcome without also addressing the social barriers that are present within the aboriginal population. The legacy of the residential schools — addiction, family violence, loss of cultural identity, social disengagement, learned helplessness — all of these come in to play when a student is trying to better their life and prospects.

This is why the centre where I work doesn’t just offer educational supports; we also offer a subsidized housing program, assistance with daycare, cultural training, counselling services, emergency supports, mentorship opportunities and much more. Our students don’t succeed simply because of the education they receive, they succeed because they learn how to be leaders, how to believe in themselves and to take care of themselves and their families.

They want to create a better future for their children and grandchildren. They want to heal from the wounds of the legacy they have inherited, and lead their people into a bright and successful future within Canada, bridging the gaps between what was and what is and what can be.

The Idle No More movement is engaging more and more people every day. It is an authentic representation of who aboriginal people in Canada truly are and what they truly care about: creating a future for their peoples and cultures, engaging in meaningful discussions surrounding the social and economic state of those on and off reserves, taking ownership of their lives and of their futures.

But this is not just their fight. We are all a part of this story. The cost of ignoring this latest call to action will have huge implications for all of Canada. For those who have been saying that aboriginal people need to take care of themselves: they are trying to do just that. Now it’s our turn to engage in the future. It’s our turn to lend our voices to the cause, to push not just for discussion, but for action.

Aboriginal issues are our issues and our silence will have just as much impact as our voices. It is our choice what kind of future we want to create.

Brynn Doctor helps run the aboriginal education program at Mount Royal University in Calgary.