OTTAWA - One of the Conservative government's go-to people on aboriginal issues says Ottawa needs to focus its efforts on a profound need for employment among First Nations if the fortunes of Canada's native communities are to improve.
And Chief Clarence Louie of B.C.'s Osoyoos Indian Band has a thick, detailed report to back up his case.
"It comes down to that word: jobs," Louie said in an interview. "To deal with the deplorable state of First Nations people in this country, our people need employment."
Louie is the chairman of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, which has released a new report on the large — and growing — social and economic gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
The report says First Nations have made modest gains during the five-year span of 2006 and 2011 but "significant gaps remain" between the two groups.
In particular, the gaps have widened between First Nations members living on-reserve and non-aboriginals in areas such as employment, reliance on government transfers, and college and university completion rates.
The report's conclusions are based on social and economic indicators from the five-year period of the study, including income, employment and education statistics.
Louie said the government needs to focus more time and effort on building up on-reserve programs.
He said the issue reaches back to when the reserve system was created and aboriginal people were "shoved out of the economy."
"The colonial approach toward First Nations has always been native people don't need the best land, the settlers do," Louie said.
A key recommendation urges the federal government to concentrate on upholding First Nation treaty rights and obligations, which have been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
"We've got to get back to that original treaty relationship, which was a business relationship," Louie said.
In 2012, the board developed a goal to achieve "economic and social parity" between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians by 2022. It also agreed to measure progress and report on its findings every three years.
The report's conclusions indicate aboriginal people are not currently on track to achieve equality with non-aboriginal Canadians. It said more action is needed to get results.
"We really, really believe that that can happen and it is realistic to work toward," said the board's vice-chair Dawn Madahbee. "There needs to be a concerted effort made ... I think this is the way forward."
The report's other recommendations include calls to improve access to education, to bolster employment skills and training tailored to aboriginal people, and to develop a national aboriginal youth strategy.
Madahbee said when aboriginal people have access to a basic standard of living that is comparable to other Canadians, it is beneficial to the Canadian economy.