01/25/2013 12:07 EST | Updated 03/27/2013 05:12 EDT

The Costs of Staying Idle on Aboriginal Issues

Thanks to woeful tales of seemingly gold-plated Zambonis in remote reserves, many Canadians have responded to recent calls for an improved relationship between Indigenous peoples and Ottawa as something that's too expensive to consider.

The perception is that improvements will cost big bucks, and ultimately hurt Canada's economy. But few have pondered what the costs of maintaining the status quo could be. And it turns out a lot of people who think primarily about money worry doing nothing is awful for the bottom line.

Way back in 1997, the Royal Bank of Canada's chief economist at the time, current Liberal MP John McCallum, weighed in on what was then a similar conversation to the one Canada is having today with Idle No More.

At a press conference, McCallum noted the troubling social and economic indicators amongst Indigenous peoples. He then said that "If one is not moved by these statistics, one might instead be moved by the high and rising cost of the status quo.

"Failure to improve the situation," McCallum said, "will extract a large and rising charge on the public purse."

The discussion McCallum entered had been sparked by the 1996 release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). The report was itself the denouement of the "Indian Summer" of 1990. Events such as the Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper's soft-but-decisive "no" to the Meech Lake Accord, and the protracted land dispute at Oka, Quebec between Mohawks, Quebec police and the Canadian Army, woke Canada up to the fact the relationship was broken.

To anyone who follows current events, this should sound eerily familiar.

The RCAP proposed some 400 recommendations aimed at transforming the relationship between First Peoples and Canada. At its core was a federal government investment plan, estimated to cost $1.5 billion per year over 15 to 20 years. The idea was that this investment into the human resources of Indigenous peoples in Canada would both save and make money.

The reason wasn't just moral; it was economic, and based on simple demographics. As McCallum noted:

Between 1991 and 2016, the population with aboriginal identity is projected to rise by 52 per cent (compared to 22 per cent for non-aboriginal Canadians). More striking, because of differences in demographic structure, the working-age aboriginal population (aged 15-64) is expected to grow by 72 per cent over this same period, as compared with only 23 per cent for non-aboriginal Canadians

Today, more than 30 per cent of Canadian businesses are stifled by skilled-labour shortages. Yet on those social indicators, not much has changed. In fact, in 2011, former auditor general Sheila Fraser noted that the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians -- the gap responsible for Indigenous youth not qualifying for those skilled jobs Canadian companies need to fill -- hadn't shrunk. It had grown.

Put another way, doing nothing has cost a lot of dough, through lost labour productivity. Back in 1996, the RCAP authors estimated this cost would be in the billions. Though few are talking about this prediction today, there's evidence to support the notion that they might have been right.

The same demographics that McCallum noted in 1997 are behind Idle No More today. The same problems that he, RCAP, and countless others pointed to remain, or have intensified. And it's not going away. In the next decade, it's estimated that 400,000 Indigenous Canadians will be entering the work force.

For this reason alone, it's perhaps unsurprising to hear that in 2012, the Canadian Council of CEOs argued for:

... a renewed and purposeful commitment from governments and Aboriginal leaders. One priority is to ensure government authorities responsible for education work with the business community and aboriginal representatives to design a tripartite solution to combating the related problems of underemployment of aboriginal youth and current labour shortages.

Fine, you say. If doing nothing is so expensive, just what's is the way forward? Many within the Idle No More movement have held up the RCAP as the most comprehensive roadmap to get somewhere better. Yet we've barely heard mention of it from pundits who are supposedly concerned with Canada's bottom line.

Could be a costly oversight, that.

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