OTTAWA - A new federal report that probes the quality of life among Canada's aboriginal peoples shows the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal is glaring — but not quite as bad as it used to be.
The government-commissioned report is meant to set a baseline to compare aboriginal and non-aboriginal standards of living in the future.
It also sets out a range of goals to get rid of the gap completely, within 10 years — targets even the report's chairman says are on the "bold" side.
"While many will find these targets ambitious, the board believes that concerted efforts by all parties will make them attainable," says Chief Clarence Louie, chairman of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board in his introduction to the report.
The board was created in 1990 by a federal order-in-council, and has devoted its attention in the past few years to producing the benchmarking report — what it calls the first comprehensive attempt to measure participation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit in the Canadian economy.
On the positive side, the report shows more and more aboriginal people are participating in the work force, while the non-aboriginal participation rate is falling.
The report also shows that graduation from high school is improving — although education levels are still dramatically lower than for non-aboriginals, especially when it comes to Inuit and First Nations people on reserve.
Self-employment is on the rise. Women generally fare much better than men. And Metis populations have several economic indicators in the same range as non-aboriginals.
"What we're trying to do is show there's a glimmer of hope here," said Dawn Madahbee, the vice-chair of the board who spearheaded work on the benchmarking report.
The improvements show that a concerted effort by government, aboriginals and business can make a difference and eventually eliminate the inequalities between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, she said.
A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government would review the report, and supports the principle of closing economic gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations. But he stopped short of endorsing the target of equality within 10 years.
Madahbee was already pushing back.
"We believe we need to achieve those targets. We need to be on par with mainstream Canada, and we believe it's possible," she said.
But the report also shows that unemployment is generally much higher for aboriginals, especially for First Nations people living on reserves, and incomes are considerably lower too.
The unemployment rate for aboriginals is roughly double the rate for the rest of the country. The percentage of the working age population that has a job on reserves is about 24 percentage points lower than for non-aboriginals.
And aboriginal incomes are about two-thirds the level of non-aboriginals. For First Nations people on reserves, average incomes are less than half the rest of the population's.
Still, the report points out that aboriginal incomes are growing faster than non-aboriginals, increasing at a 2.2 per cent pace between 1995 and 2005. Non-aboriginal incomes grew just 1.46 per cent a year during the same period.
As for infrastructure, conditions in aboriginal communities are dramatically worse than elsewhere. Almost half of First Nations reserves and 31 per cent of Inuit communities had reported water quality issues. Overcrowding is common.
"We're not glossing over it. That's the reality we live in," said Madahbee.
The benchmarking report relied heavily on the last census for its research. That's because most Statistics Canada reports with up-to-date data do not include First Nations on reserves. However, the benchmarking report complemented the census research with other more recent work.
A separate, more contemporary, study that looks at the aboriginal labour market between 2007 and 2011 found that unemployment among aboriginal Canadians was 5.6 percentage points higher than non-aboriginals.
That research, by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, had to exclude First Nations living on reserves since Statistics Canada's labour force survey does not include them. Including on-reserve populations would have made the results far worse.
The report found that the recession hammered aboriginal populations harder than non-aboriginal, partly because of the high proportion of people working in the resource sector.
But since 60 per cent of working-age aboriginal people live in the West and close to natural resources, the possibilities for employment growth are strong — if the workforce is properly trained, said the centre's director Andrew Sharpe.