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Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples

October 2003


Our Aboriginal youth want what all other young persons in Canada want – hope.

Ms. Jamie Gallant,
Youth and Labour Market Intern, Congress of Aboriginal People

Of all issues affecting urban Aboriginal people, some of the most pressing and urgent are the needs of Aboriginal youth.  We are struck by the absolute necessity of addressing their needs – particularly those estranged from their cultural heritage and the broader community in which they reside.  In evidence to the Committee, Aboriginal youth have been variously described as:

·        a generation experiencing a sense of hopelessness for the future because of the barriers and discrimination they face;([1])

·        vulnerable to poverty, cultural and social alienation;([2]) and

·        live in a world characterized by poverty, violence and racism.([3])

It is therefore depressingly unsurprising that, despite the probability that suicide rates are under-recorded, the Aboriginal youth suicide rate in Canada is estimated to be five to six times higher than that of non-Aboriginal youth.([4])


A Multitude of Pressure Points

In a compilation of evidence to the Committee, Members identified the following problems facing Aboriginal youth, particularly in urban areas:

·        loss of identity, language and culture (which engenders feelings of isolation and alienation in an urban setting, makes gang involvement more attractive);

·        low levels of education, poor school attendance, high unemployment levels with poor job prospects;

·        lack of parental involvement and support in their daily lives (dysfunctional families, absentee parents) ;

·        being young single parents with poor parenting skills;

·        substance abuse (alcohol, marijuana, narcotics, petrol, glue);

·        physical and emotional abuse (inter-generational effects of residential school system, sexual abuse, family violence);

·        difficulties obtaining accommodation (cannot afford adequate housing, come to urban areas without a place to stay, using emergency shelters);

·        difficulties accessing services (which can range from not having enough money for transportation to not being aware of programs and services available);

·        poverty (affecting health, contributing to poor lifestyles and higher rates of criminal activity); an d

·        racism and discrimination (affects self-esteem and confidence, fosters hostility toward broader society, feelings of marginalization and alienation).

Having identified some of the more salient issues affecting youth, the question is how to foster a more constructive dynamic for urban Aboriginal youth and mitigate their social exclusion?  Members of the Committee have observed that there is no single answer.  Rather, the solution is provided by a weave of supports, comprising education, recreation, urban transition services, labour market readiness, sound parenting skills, as well as strong community, cultural and family supports.  Without these necessary supports, young Aboriginal people and their families can find it difficult to overcome the challenges they face and achieve a quality of life comparable to other Canadians.  This section discusses some possible measures to create opportunities for youth and alleviate some of the pressures they face.


The Needs of Youth

1.1  Urban Aboriginal Youth Centres

Urban Aboriginal youth centres are a key component to providing that vital weave of support for Aboriginal youth.  Time and again, Aboriginal youth emphasized to the Committee the need for facilities where they could come together in a comfortable and welcoming environment.  They talked of a safe place, free from alcohol and drugs, where they could be with peers, develop their interests, learn from elders, or simply hang out.  This is particularly important in urban centres.  There was consensus among witnesses that youth centres in cities were needed to assist youth making the transition from reserves and rural communities to urban life.

When we look at the demographics and population trends, we know that urban communities need to have urban centres for youth … Aboriginal youth need a place to go and belong and to be able to access a home away from home in urban centres.  That is what our young people want in our community.([5])

It is anticipated that urban Aboriginal youth centres would help counteract the cultural and social dislocation many young people experience, either as new arrivals to the city or as long-term residents.  By establishing places where youth can connect with their cultural traditions, their peers and elders, as well as explore opportunities for growth a city can provide, youth centres act as a much-needed positive alternative to street life or gang involvement.  One young man told us how the Keewatin Winnipeg Youth Centre offers a healthy alternative to otherwise risky behaviours:

Some of our youth have had a history with involvement in gangs and street life, drugs and alcohol abuse.  The program has helped and made an impact for youth as a positive alternative to that kind of lifestyle.([6])

For many urban Aboriginal youth there is no readily accessible Aboriginal community to which they can turn to for support.  As a result, many experience deep feelings of alienation.  Such feelings are amplified in urban areas where the portrayal of mainstream culture is so dominant.  One group spoke of the “hardships youth face in cities because they are isolated from their people and culture.”([7])  Similarly, another group spoke of the challenges for young urban people struggling to maintain or come to terms with their identity in environments which “are indifferent and often hostile to Aboriginal cultures.”([8])  Youth centres can offer a focal point for Aboriginal youth coming to, or living in, urban areas.

Overwhelmingly, youth indicated that they required positive spaces where they could go and not be treated as somehow defective, as problems to be fixed.  Whereas the vast majority of programming is geared to the social pathology of being urban and Aboriginal, we were told by youth that they wanted a supportive place to go where they could tap into their interests, develop their talents and nurture their leadership abilities:  a place where they were more than just the sum of their problems:

When I first moved down here, there was no place where I could go and just hang out and feel good about myself without walking into some sort of centre that would probably label me as some kid with no place to go and in need of a hot drink and a meal.  And I think that is just sad.  We should have resources, programs that are accessible to us that will allow us to just hang out, to connect with other young native people.  There is no place I can really do that if I do not have a label as some person with troubles.([9])

In Winnipeg, the Committee had an opportunity to visit a youth-operated facility in the north end of the city:  the Keewatin Winnipeg Youth Initiative (KWYI).  Members of the Committee were warmly welcomed by the youth coordinators and participants, and were able to see and hear, first hand, the difference this facility makes to the lives of its young people.  One witness told us how the KWYI helped him make positive changes to his pervious lifestyle:

I was grateful for coming across the people that I met here … because at the age of 22 I decided to make a transition in my lifestyle.  I was an active and recognized member of the streets here in the North End … I was grateful for the assistance I received and taking that opportunity to display to myself and to my family what I really can be.([10])

Another young man talked about how he found support and a sense of belonging among his peers:

When I came to Winnipeg I ran into some problems, as in gangs and things … I needed a way out and it wasn’t too easy.  That’s when I came here.  I was able to sit down with them (the youth coordinators) and they seen exactly what I could do.  Chris and John told me they knew what kind of guy I was and knew what I could do, and they just needed to help me find it … and now it’s a lot easier when I have problems here in the city.  I could turn to anyone of these people and they would back me up one hundred percent.([11])

We are convinced that the sense of belonging the youth felt at the centre, the pride they took in it, as well as in each other’s success, was because it belonged to them – to all of them.  The centre is truly a safe haven for these young people; a refuge from an often harsh and alien environment.  It is difficult to imagine the sense of community that exists at the centre could be achieved in a mainstream institution.  That sense of belonging comes from being surrounded by people who have had similar experiences, share a common history, and are fighting the same struggles as oneself.  Together these youth help each other build the confidence necessary to be successful in the broader community.  One young woman told us how being a part of the KWYI helped her build confidence and self-esteem:

I had to quit school when I was 17 because I had to start paying rent.  So the program helped me get back into high school … I plan to graduate and got to the University of Manitoba and pursue my long-term goal of being a social worker.  Now I am confident I can do that.([12])

And, finally, that:

The Keewatin Youth Initiative is probably the best program I have seen implemented, because not only does it focus on the recreational aspect, it delivers on all four aspects of personal growth.  For me that is a successful youth centre.  And that is what we are encouraging in our communities to pursue as well as for their own communities, taking the holistic approach.  It is more than just recreation, you have to instil values and create a sense of identity at the same time.([13])


The Keewatin Winnipeg Youth Initiative

The Keewatin Winnipeg Youth Initiative is a youth-driven, community-based initiative.  Its facility is located in a northern neighbourhood in Winnipeg, providing easy access for a community youth resource centre.

Established in the summer of 2001, KWYI provides a safe and positive environment for youth and has helped build a safer and healthier community.

The KWYI has two on-site youth coordinators, and there are currently 
32 youth participating in the second phase of the project.

The KWYI project objectives are to provide the skills, resources, and opportunities for youth to become employable or further their education; provide understanding and awareness in the areas of recreation, health and culture; provide volunteer and work placement opportunities; provide training and workshops in areas affecting youth; assist youth in building a career path.

The KWYI is open to Aboriginal youth aged 15-19, who have been unemployed and out of school for a period of at least 3 months.


It is anticipated that urban Aboriginal youth centres will provide holistic programming – a continuum of care needed to improve the lives of urban Aboriginal youth.  In fulfilling the social, educational, spiritual, recreational, and artistic needs of urban Aboriginal youth, such facilities would move beyond the current “crisis intervention model” to one that supports and develops the aspirations of Aboriginal youth.  According to one young woman:

The provision through youth centres of basic health services and mental health services is important.  Aboriginal youth want and need somewhere to hang out and to spend time so that they are deterred from engaging in destructive behaviour.  Centres of that kind would be important.  There are some excellent centres now.  It would be a challenge to try to fill those gaps, to assess the successful ones and ensure that they are distributed in different communities.([14])

In Vancouver, the Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) is establishing such a centre for their youth population.  The centre, which is to be completed in the next two to four years, would include a proposed gymnasium, theatre, café, carving studio, youth and pre‑teen drop-in centres, an alternate school, pre-employment services, a computer lab, and second-stage housing facilities.([15])  In describing the need for such centres to help Aboriginal youth overcome the pressures of urban life, the UNYA told the Committee:

There is a solution to this problem in that we can offer young folks a place that they call their own.  They need a place that they can control and govern...We need a place where the kids can have fun again.  We do not have children that are having fun anymore.  We are always too busy trying to fix them.  We are always trying to fix them and heal them, but we do not play with them.  We need to do more of that.  It is critical that the children have fun.([16])

The location of youth centres should also be carefully considered.  According to witnesses, Aboriginal youth preferred accessing programs and services in their own neighbourhoods rather than having to travel downtown.  One young woman summed up her hesitancy in accessing youth services offered by the friendship centre located in Vancouver’s notorious downtown east side in this way:

I did not go to the east side because I was warned by my family that the east side was a pretty bad place, but that is the central location of where are services are.  So I pretty much avoided that area.([17])

Witnesses to the Committee unanimously recommended the establishment of Aboriginal youth centres:  a fact that has registered strongly with us.  We have been impressed by what we have seen and heard of their potential.  Acknowledging the need to ease some of the pressures and challenges Aboriginal youth face in the city, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples also underscored the importance of establishing youth centres.

Accordingly, the Committee makes the following recommendation:

Recommended Action

The federal government, in collaboration with its provincial counterparts and appropriate urban Aboriginal youth representatives and agencies, should provide capital funding for the establishment of Urban Aboriginal Youth Centres in urban communities where there is a significant Aboriginal youth population.  Centres should be located in areas where they can be readily accessed by youth.

Where appropriate, urban Aboriginal youth centres might be established in existing facilities such as friendship centres, community centres or schools.  However, we stress that witnesses have recommended that, where numbers warrant, separate youth centres be established.


1.2  Urban Transition Programs

There are a variety of reasons for which Aboriginal youth move to the city.  Common among them is a desire to access enhanced education and employment opportunities.  Whatever the reasons for moving to a city, many Aboriginal youth experience a profound sense of cultural dislocation and powerlessness upon arrival.  Despite a desire to carve out a better future for themselves in the city, many are simply unprepared to take up the challenges of urban living.  Consistently, we heard evidence that:

Many youth lack basic living/social skills, awareness of how to deal with major social issues, and how to seek out opportunities to truly feel a genuine part of the broader society.([18])

Thus, without the necessary skills, the transition to a successful urban life is especially problematic.  In the absence of sufficient personal resources and community supports, many young Aboriginal people risk turning to other avenues to find a sense of belonging.  Aboriginal youth gangs often become a substitute for that sense of community, connectedness and identity that is missing for many Aboriginal youth.

Discrimination is also a harsh reality many Aboriginal youth must contend with when moving to a city, and is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of urban life.  Racism can, and often does, exert a tremendous hardship on these young lives.  According to witnesses:

·        Nothing is more devastating to a young person, no matter what their ancestry, than racism.([19])

·        Racism, discrimination and a general lack of awareness of Aboriginal history continue to impact youth in all settings within an urban environment.([20])

·        The effects of discrimination are internalized and manifest themselves in feelings of isolation, leading to low self-esteem which may never go away.([21])

This Committee believes that discrimination, whether real or perceived, subtle or institutionalized, has reduced the appropriateness of mainstream programs for Aboriginal youth and limited their willingness to access services.

We have heard from a broad range of Aboriginal organizations, community leaders and youth themselves that positive supports and advocacy services are required to assist youth successfully adjust and adapt to urban living.  We were troubled by the fact that youth are often entirely unaware of what programs and services are available to them, where to access services, or with whom to speak to get information on what supports are available.

There is a need to ensure that youth are provided with a higher quality of service in regard to urban transition.  Despite its necessity, governments have paid scant attention to this type of programming.  In its inventory of programs and services available to urban Aboriginal people, the Canada West Foundation found that:

Although the transition from rural and reserve areas to a major city can be much like immigrating to Canada from another country, we determined that that Government of Canada does not fund transition programs for Aboriginal peoples to the extent that it funds transition programs for recent immigrants to Canada.  Urban Aboriginal transition programming receives less than 5 cents for every dollar spent on immigrant settlement and transition.([22]) [Emphasis Added]

As a result, much needed programming required for a successful transition to urban centres, or to improve quality of life in the city, are not available or in very short supply.


Moreover, we find that linking urban transition programming between rural and urban centres has not been adequately explored.  According to witnesses, the skills, training and experience which youth take with them when they migrate, to a very great degree, determine the success which will be encountered on arrival.  Despite the stated importance of the pre-migration phase to successful adaptation to urban life, it would appear that little or no pre-migration counselling is taking place.  Moreover, from a demographic perspective, we know there is high degree of circulation between reserve communities and urban areas.  According to one witness:

It is difficult to distinguish between urban issues and issues impacting reserves.  As an example, when Aboriginal street gangs form in Winnipeg, they do their recruiting on the reserve, in jails and so on.  Housing problems on a reserve might cause people to move into the cities.  Therefore, there is a huge relation between the two issues.  We must take a holistic approach to the problem because there is a definite connection.([23])

Thus, establishing a broader network between urban organizations and reserve and rural communities to ensure that youth are better served in their transition to urban settings should be considered.

Based on the evidence before us, the Committee feels strongly that urban youth transition services should be established, in major urban centres in Canada, to ensure that those youth migrating to cities are met with positive supports and are directed to appropriate organizations that can assist them with their transitional issues.  Some key services might include:

·        housing supports and referrals;

·        employment and training services;

·        English literacy skills;

·        counselling services, including pre-migration counselling;

·        advocacy and liaison;

·        education and career planning; and

·        information on available programs and services.

These services, in turn, should be linked to communities of origin through effective partnerships.  In this critical transition period for youth, we believe transition programming will help to minimize feelings of isolation that comes from being away from one’s community; assist youth integrate positively into the wider community; and prevent youth from turning to others to gain a sense of belonging, such as youth gangs, or other groups which may have a negative influence on them.

Accordingly, the Committee recommends that:

Recommended Action

The federal government, in collaboration with appropriate Aboriginal organizations, should establish community-based, culturally appropriate urban Aboriginal youth transition programs.  Efforts should be made to link Aboriginal youth transition services to reserve and rural communities .


1.3  Sport, Art and Recreation

One of the things that kept me on the straight and narrow was being involved in sport and recreation.  I think that if I did not have that outlet I would not be sitting here today

Mr. Rob Campre,
Director, Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee

The positive benefits of sport and art for youth are well-documented.  The Committee believes that Aboriginal youth, like all youth, require recreational outlets and positive pathways for their energies.  Sport, art and recreational activities provide young people with healthy alternatives to drinking and drug use.  They are also effective at relieving boredom, which in itself, contributes to many of the negative behaviours youth engage in.  Sport also provides structure to young people’s lives.  The discipline, teamwork, creativity and goal-setting involved has ancillary benefits that can spill over into other aspects of a young person’s life.  We accept, however, on the evidence, that there is severe lack of affordable recreation available to Aboriginal youth in urban areas.  Sustained efforts to make sport and recreational facilities widely available must be made in order to lessen the continued vulnerability of growing numbers of Aboriginal youth to social and physical dysfunction.

The relationship between the availability of recreational activities and diversion from anti-social behaviour is difficult to dispute.  The lack of anything constructive to do can result in life-long patterns of destructive behaviour.  One witness who spoke at our hearings in Vancouver described for us the effect the absence of recreational activities had on youth in her community :

Our young kids, the little pre-teens and the teenagers would jump off the school bus, pick up a smoke, a hit of some kind of dope or hang on the streets and get into trouble.  There was nothing reaching them and occupying them in a constructive, positive way.([24])

The lack of adequate recreation facilities creates pressures for youth to engage in more harmful behaviours, such as alcohol and substance abuse, as ways to escape the crushing boredom.

Our youth are bored.  This may seem like a common issue, not just among Aboriginal youth, but youth in general.  There is one difference however.  Aboriginal youth do not have the same opportunities as their non-Aboriginal counterparts.  They are faced with high rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, violence, health problems, abuse, family violence, sexual exploitation, and the list goes on.  Add to this boredom and the results are disastrous – suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, incarceration, and the continued intergeneration cycle of violence.([25])

According to witnesses, sport is an effective and positive means to assist at-risk youth.  While the sporting activity is the draw, many of the programs we learned about are developed in such a way as to provide related benefits to its young participants.  Criteria for participation often include life skills training, leadership development, academic tutoring and requirements that young people attend school regularly.  In this way, sport and recreation programming is designed to support a wide-range of healthy behaviours among youth while building their capacity in other areas.

There are many excellent examples of programs that use sport, art and recreation as a means to open up greater opportunities for youth.  We were especially impressed with the work being done by the Manitoba Sport and Recreation Council Inc. in assisting inner-city Winnipeg youth participate in a sports camp through its Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre program.  Youth from inner-city schools are recruited by Aboriginal coordinators and given a unique opportunity to participate in a sports camp – an opportunity that would normally be out of reach for many.  For about seven weeks throughout the summer, approximately 1,000 young people are provided daily meals and a chance to be exposed to, and participate in, a range of recreational activities, within a culturally sensitive environment.

The arts also provide youth with positive outlets.  Theatre, music, story-telling, dance all provide youth with positive modes of expression.  In their appearance before the Committee, Ms. Laura Milliken and Ms. Jennifer Podemski of Big Soul Productions told members that the arts, quite literally, saved their lives.  That message was heard consistently from youth:

I am a Métis dancer; that is what kept me out of trouble.  Even when I did get into addiction issues or trouble with the law, I always had my dancing to go to.  It brought me to Ottawa a lot of times, and I think coming here has changed my life a lot.  I think what we need are more recreational programs out there for youth, whether they be cultural or sports‑related.  They need something to be proud of themselves, and I think we need to encourage that.([26])

We heard of several programs that use the arts as a vehicle to foster self-esteem, social interaction and life-skill training.  One such example is the Métis Cultural Dance Society that gives young Métis people the opportunity to learn Métis traditional dance, culture and fiddling.


The “Awareness Through Art” is a holistic program, offered by the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, which targets “youth-in-transition” and youth seeking to make positive changes in their lives.

The program uses theatre and other artistic mediums to open youth up through positive risk taking, reintegrate them into the Aboriginal community of Toronto, expose them to peer support and elders, and build self-esteem.

Through participation in the program, relationships are fostered and youth are provided – many for the first time – with a strong sense of community and their role in the community.


Individuals are not the only beneficiaries of making recreational activities widely available.  Sport, art and recreation can also be instrumental in bringing together entire communities.  We have heard much about the devastating and inter-generational effects that residential schools have had, and continue to have, upon families.  This deep legacy of colonialism, which includes sexual and physical abuse, has made it difficult to maintain health and cohesion in Aboriginal families.([27])  The result is that many Aboriginal homes and communities suffer a deep disconnection from one another.  Parents are often absent and youth neglected.

In evidence to the Committee, we were told that sport and recreational activities have had a restorative effect upon their communities.  The Night Hoops basketball program, for example, was designed in response to a need identified by the community to try to connect youth to the community.  The results were impressive:

We have gone from zero participation to full participation.  The gym that had been empty on Monday nights is now full with parents watching their kids play basketball.  Parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles all came to support the kids.  Basketball has become an activity to look forward to … When you go to the centre you see excitement, life, fun and participation.  Kids that normally would be on the streets are participating in something productive, something that is good because they are developing both their minds and their bodies.  They really benefit from their parents being there to watch them.  Their parents are the key people in their lives.([28])

How was a youth basketball program able to accomplish so much?  The answer is simple.  The program was designed to be highly inclusive.  Everyone involved – referees, scorekeepers, timekeepers, concession stand operators – came from the community.  Ability to coach or knowledge of the game of basketball was secondary to participation.  “There are certainly more highly skilled coaches out there, people with a great deal more knowledge” we were told “but the idea was to build capacity within their own community.  Other adult leaders in the community became involved, and to me the most important role they played were cheerleaders.”([29])  The Night Hoops basketball program, and others like it across the country, we believe are protective factor for youth.  The sense of community, belonging and empowerment they can engender is critical to their well-being.

Encouraging Aboriginal youth participation in sport requires dedicated funding and support by government.  Poverty is often a great barrier in encouraging Aboriginal youth from becoming involved in mainstream sports.  Equipment, fees, and transportation costs are often too prohibitive, particularly for the more expensive sports such as hockey.  Families simply do not have the financial resources to support their children participating in these programs.

It is often difficult to encourage a child to think about such a career when poverty is a big issue in his or her life.  Some of these children do not even own a bathing suit.  Our survey indicated at out of 1000 children surveyed only 10 per cent owned their own sporting equipment.  Those figures are discouraging and can open your eyes to some of the pressing issues that these inner city kids are facing.([30])

Repeatedly, witnesses told us of the difficulty they had in accessing funding in order to provide sport and arts programming and related supports for Aboriginal youth and children:

What remains surprising to me with regards to both of these initiatives is the difficulty in accessing funding to support them despite, literally reams of research that says that programs of this type are very good.([31])

Often art, music and theatre are the first things to be cut from our education systems or programs, I am here to tell you the impact it has on our community.([32])

The difficulty in obtaining adequate and sustained funding for this kind of programming is that other areas of high need, such as health, employment, housing and education, tend to receive priority.  However, this kind of proactive programming is integral to capturing the talents, abilities, strengths and worth of Aboriginal youth.  We are impressed by the testimony heard on this issue and are persuaded that such programs build capacity among youth, connect them in a fun and positive way to their community, and divert them from less attractive pursuits.  We, therefore, feel strongly that governments need to make adequate funding available for Aboriginal youth sport, art and recreation programming in urban centres.

Accordingly, the Committee makes the following recommendation:

Recommended Action

The federal government, through the Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport, should establish and fund an Urban Aboriginal Youth Sport and Recreation Initiative.  The Initiative should promote sport and recreation programs that are:

·        Community-based, delivered and designed.

·        Sustainable and long-term rather than of limited duration.

·        Designed to build the capacity Aboriginal youth through instruction in recreation programming, leadership development and life skill training.

The Committee recognizes the vital importance of cultural and arts programming for Aboriginal youth living in urban areas.  Not only are these types of programs instrumental in building confidence and self-esteem, they help connect youth to their identity, talents and culture.  For youth living in cities, the cultural connection and type of expression that comes from participating in art, dance, theatre, and story-telling is of inestimable value to them.  Given the particular challenges that Aboriginal youth face in maintaining their culture and identity in urban environments, this Committee further recommends :

Recommended Action

·        The federal government, through the Minister of Canadian Heritage, should provide dedicated and sustained funding for arts programming targeted specifically to Aboriginal youth in urban areas.

Finally, we agree completely with the observation made by one witness that the “time has come that the doors should open because the future of our youth is at stake” and that “if we do not provide these programs for our youth today then they will not have a better tomorrow.”([33])  Thus, we urge the federal government to act immediately in implementing these recommendations.


1.4  Education:  Addressing Drop-out Rates

We do not talk in terms of excellence, achievement and success.
When we tell our students to survive, they do.

Professor David Newhouse,
Associate Professor and Chair of Native Studies, Trent University

High rates of truancy and poor academic performance continue to compromise the future of many Aboriginal youth.  The 2000 Auditor General’s report concluded that “at the current rate of progress, it will take over 20 years for them to reach parity in academic achievement with other Canadians.”([34])  A report by a federal government taskforce on education declared that First Nations education was in crisis and that the “issue is particularly pressing given that the Aboriginal population is the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada.”([35])

Several well-researched studies have examined this issue in far greater depth than we can do justice here.  Together, these studies advance a number of crucial reforms aimed at improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal youth.  Among the key proposals for reform witnesses presented us, are similar to those contained elsewhere.  These include:

·        the need to recruit and train more Aboriginal teachers and staff;

·        the need to promote culturally-sensitive learning environments, including cross cultural sensitivity training for non-Aboriginal teachers and staff;

·        the need for culturally-appropriate curriculum development;

·        the need for increased parental involvement;

·        raising academic standards to equitable levels;

·        the development of urban Aboriginal schools; and

·        secondary school supports and guidance for Aboriginal youth.

Sadly, many of these proposed reforms have not been implemented.  The result is that a staggering seven out of ten First Nations youth will drop out of school.([36])  Those who remain in school tend to have lower levels of educational attainment.  Although there has been some nominal improvement in high school graduation rates in recent years,([37]) the vast majority of Aboriginal youth face poor educational prospects, and as a result, limited opportunities for the future:

Education is still a barrier for youth.  Our young people are still not finding success in mainstream educational institutions … We know that Aboriginal young people come into school systems in the urban communities who are sometimes two and three years behind in their academic abilities and are therefore already at a disadvantage when they reach our public and Catholic school systems.([38])

In evidence to the Committee, poor school attendance was identified as a serious problem among Aboriginal youth.  According to several witnesses, it is especially problematic because of the correlation between truancy and anti-social or self-harming behaviours.  When youth are not in school, we were told, they are often engaged in less constructive pursuits:

We need to look at youth drop out rates.  Eight out ten Aboriginal youth drop out of high school.  Only two out of ten make it through and get an education.  But you need to look at the spin off.  If they are not in school, they usually get involved in crime and with other things that lead to that – prostitution, early pregnancy, teen pregnancy.  The stats are there to substantiate that we have an overrepresentation in those areas.([39])

There are many complex reasons why youth stop attending school.  Some of these reasons include:  racism; lack of parental involvement and guidance; resentment and embarrassment caused by feeling less successful scholastically than other students; instability caused by high rates of residential mobility; feelings of isolation caused by being in environments that are not culturally-sensitive; an inability to afford text books, sporting equipment, and excursion fees; an unstable home life; and, poverty.

Consistently, witnesses emphasized that the lack of parental involvement, guidance and support was partly responsible for the fact that Aboriginal youth continue to fare so poorly academically.  Many studies on Aboriginal education have stressed the importance of parental and community involvement in the education system as key elements in student success.  The 1996 report of the Sub-Committee on Aboriginal Education([40]) found that some of the barriers to parental involvement included the lingering impacts of the residential school system.

The damaging effects of residential schools on Aboriginal peoples, cultures, and languages are now widely recognized.  One such effect is that there is a deep mistrust among some Aboriginal people of mainstream educational institutions.  The importance of obtaining a good education becomes secondary to what may be perceived as a further assimilative assault on Aboriginal culture, language and traditions.  This fundamental mistrust of the education system, according to one witness, is partly responsible for the low value placed on education:

A lack or absence of good parenting skills often means there is no value placed on education, for itself, and little encouragement for children to do their best.  Parents either can’t help with school assignments because, the parents, themselves have not completed high school and in many cases, primary school, or, they don’t help because they do not appreciate the benefits that can be derived from education.([41])

Another witness observed that adequate parental involvement is a difficult and sensitive issue to address in some Aboriginal communities:

The Metis community is willing to accept that our parents must do more.  Through the process of poverty and colonization that has taken place throughout the past decades, I notice in our students a lack of parental skills and everyday life skills that are needed to survive.  Most troubling is that the responsibility that a child succeeds in school is not where it should be.([42])

And finally, we heard from witnesses of the need for measures to promote parental participation:

There is a need to encourage parents to remain engaged in their teenagers’ high school years, as well as participate in the selection and decision making process of career planning.([43])

The scepticism Aboriginal parents feel about the education system is understandable.  However, it underlines the importance of reconnecting Aboriginal families to the education system and ensuring that the education system is reflective of Aboriginal families.  Learning environments, curricula, teachers and staff must be responsive to the needs of Aboriginal students and their families.  Reforms aimed at accommodating Aboriginal culture in mainstream educational institutions and Aboriginal people in decision-making structures need to be implemented.  We feel strongly that governments and school boards have an obligation to ensure that schools offer a culturally appropriate learning environment where children are stimulated and see their schooling and curricula as relevant.

Moreover, we believe a greater effort must be made to educate urban Aboriginal youth, their families and communities about the importance of education, the ways in which higher education will improve the quality of their life, and more importantly, how it can help youth achieve a sense of accomplishment, self-worth and esteem.  In conjunction with education reforms aimed at developing culturally appropriate curricula and Aboriginal teacher recruitment, a national strategy is needed to promote the benefits of staying in school and to encourage families to take responsibility for supporting their children to attend school.

In this context, the Committee notes that there have been several successful initiatives to increase Aboriginal parental and community involvement in education decision-making.  Among these, we were struck by the results being achieved at Alberta Learning Centre.  Established by the Edmonton Catholic School Board, the Centre has developed a range of programs to support Aboriginal students and families as well as bring the Aboriginal perspective in the classroom by providing teacher development.([44])  Several regional organizations have also emerged to promote quality education for Aboriginal learners.  For example, the First Nations Education Steering Committee in British Columbia works, at the provincial level, to identify and advance First Nation education issues.

The establishment of alternative urban schools such as Ben Calf Robe School and Amiskwaciy Academy are examples of successful innovative measures that support quality education for Aboriginal students.  Their academic program is based on the core provincial curriculum, but is enriched by offering option courses that reflect Aboriginal knowledge, traditions and values.  Such schools are experiencing great success.  In particular, their retention rates, compared to national averages, are striking.  Variously, we were told:

·        in 2002, Ben Calf Robe School had a retention rate of 93 per cent;([45])

·        the retention rate at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) increased from 50 percent four years ago to 70 percent of post-secondary students completing their programs, due in large part to the availability of Aboriginal student support services;([46]) and

·        due, in part, to the presence of Aboriginal liaison workers, retention rates at mainstream schools, such as St. Francis Xavier High School and St. Joseph’s High School in Edmonton are 84 percent and 88 percent respectively.

Essential to their success is an emphasis on inclusiveness and relationship building with students, parents and the community.  Such efforts recognize that a students’ broader social and economic environment within which education takes place has important effects on their educational outcomes .

Aboriginal students are particular vulnerable to leaving school during crucial academic transition periods.  For instance, the transition from junior to senior high and from high school to post-secondary institutions is when, according to evidence presented, many Aboriginal students drop out.  Witnesses told us that:

It is the transition from junior to high school when we lose a number of kids … Grade 9 is the toughest year for our kids.  We have more students in grade 9 missing school than probably anywhere else that get involved in criminal activity and other things that distract them from their education.([47])

Other witnesses targeted English literacy levels as a factor:

A lack of proficiency and comprehension with the English language contributes to individual senses of inadequacy due to a lack of command with the language.  Even though English may be spoken in homes, education systems and among youth, this does not mean the command is at a level that will enable youth to excel in academic and similar institutions.([48])

And again:

We realize that if students are coming into high school with reading levels below grade 10 or grade 9, this is going to severely lessen the chance of being successful or getting through school.([49])

Evidence suggests that the transition is difficult, in part, due to lower educational and literacy levels and the frustration that Aboriginal youth experience in having to “catch up” with the other kids.  This frustration is especially true of students who receive instruction on‑reserve and come to urban area high schools only to find they are well-behind their counter-parts in schooling.  The result is that many youth feel inferior to their peers.  Remedial help is therefore necessary if students are to be successful in completing their studies, including initiatives that promote English language literacy skills.

Transition supports, academic planning and counselling, Aboriginal liaison workers, availability of literacy programs, peer support and role models, were measures cited by witnesses as especially effective in helping Aboriginal students stay in school during these critical periods.  Using many of these tools, the Alberta Learning Centre strives to keep children in school and is doing so successfully:

If you can take them and introduce them to that high school in a safe way by giving them a tour with Aboriginal staff and Aboriginal students that are having success in that high school already, it’s all very practical.  These all very easy to do, but it makes a difference.  We had 100 percent success rate with the last transition program we did in September.([50])

There exists a mutual responsibility to support initiatives that are proving successful in encouraging and supporting the educational progress of Aboriginal youth.  Accordingly, we strongly urge all levels of government and policy-makers to look carefully at models such as Amiskwaciy Academy, and support services such as those provided by the Alberta Learning Centre, and apply these best practices on a broader scale.

While we acknowledge these extraordinary achievements, they are, as the Minister’s Working Group on Education concluded, “vastly outnumbered by the unresolved education issues that inhibit progress.”([51])  Thus, the Committee believes that more needs to be done at the federal, provincial and territorial level to reduce poor school attendance and recommends accordingly:

Recommended Action

The federal government, in cooperation with provincial, territorial governments and Aboriginal organizations, develop a strategy to reduce the Aboriginal youth truancy rate in schools.

Such strategies should include those targeting:

·        Aboriginal parents and highlighting to them the benefits of their children’s regular and ongoing attendance at school.

·        Elders, and other community leaders, in the planning and implementation of such strategies on behalf of Aboriginal youth.

·        Specific measures to address high drop out rates during critical transition periods.

·        Specific measures to promote Aboriginal culture and history in mainstream educational institutions.


1.5  Health and Sexuality:  Aboriginal Youth Teen Pregnancy

According to witnesses, one of the biggest problems in Aboriginal homes and communities is the lack of qualitative sex education.  We heard from several agencies and youth representatives that youth and pre-teens are desperately in need of this type of awareness.  In its absence, high rates of Aboriginal teen pregnancy, with many babies being born with health problems and taken into the foster care system, is often the result.

Statistics from Health Canada indicate that teenage pregnancy among First Nations youth in British Columbia, Alberta, the Prairie and Atlantic provinces are up to four times higher than the national average.  Incredibly, for young women under 15 years of age, the rate is estimated to be as much as 18 times higher than that of the general teenage population.  In a special report on the sexual health of urban Aboriginal youth entitled Tenuous Connections:  Urban Aboriginal Youth Sexual Health and Pregnancy, the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) found that high rates of teenage pregnancy were also prevalent among urban Aboriginal youth.

High rates of teen pregnancy among young Aboriginal people raise a number of serious social and health-related concerns.  As reported by the OFIFC:

Teen mothers are much more likely to develop complications which lead to medical problems, including death, iron deficiency anemia, pregnancy included hypertension, and maternal toxemia.  These factors are closely related tied in with the social situations of the mother.  Females over the age of seventeen may be physically ready to have children but the common social disadvantages among pregnant teens of poor nutrition, quality and quantity of pre-natal care, inadequacy of preparation for childbirth, and low quality of post-natal care can result in serious medical problems.([52])

This Committee is also deeply troubled by the high levels of drug and alcohol use as a contributing factor in the sexual practices of youth and in the high incidences of teen pregnancy.  The implication is that many Aboriginal youth are engaging in sexual relations when their ability to make the best choice for themselves is materially compromised.  The result is that many young women will give birth to children tragically afflicted with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE).

The effects of FAS/FAE on a child’s quality of life are devastating, leaving permanent damage such a severe developmental delays, behavioural problems, learning disabilities, and brain damage.  Greater efforts must be undertaken to educate Aboriginal youth on the dangers of alcohol and drug consumption to themselves and their babies.

Existing research suggests that fetal alcohol syndrome is a health issue of great concern among the Aboriginal population.  The federal government’s current FAS/FAE Initiative is targeted solely on reserve.([53])  As a result, urban Aboriginal service providers must compete with non-Aboriginal programs for funding to the general population.

Due to the great seriousness of this issue in Aboriginal communities, both on reserve and in urban areas, we recommend that:

Recommended Action

·        The federal government, through the Minister of Health, must act to ensure that off-reserve and urban Aboriginal organizations benefit equally from the federal government’s FAS/FAE Initiative.

·        Federal funding allocated for the FAS/FAE Initiative must be increased rather than redirected from reserve communities in order to meet the needs of urban Aboriginal communities.

Also troubling is that Aboriginal youth report little or no use of contraception, of which pregnancy is but one of several unintended results.  This puts youth at risk for a number of sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.  While the trend in the reported number of AIDS cases has shown a decline in the general population since 1994, the annual number of Aboriginal AIDS cases has risen dramatically.  The age of diagnosis is lower in Aboriginal people than in the non-Aboriginal population.  Notably, 26% of all documented AIDS cases among Aboriginal people occur under 30 years of age, and Aboriginal people are being infected as early as their teens.

Apart from these very serious health concerns, the alarming rate of Aboriginal teen pregnancy in urban areas perpetuates a cycle of poverty.  Teen pregnancy is often accompanied by early school drop out rates, high rates of unemployment, low levels of education, and increased reliance on social assistance.  While statistics on young Aboriginal mothers in urban areas are not extensive, we do know that they experience greater poverty because of their lone parent status, are far more likely to be unemployed, and have high residential mobility rates which suggests continued efforts to improve or adjust housing conditions.

These factors, combined, exert enormous pressures on young children and their mothers.  For instance, we know that frequent residential moves can result in a profound instability in a child’s development that can adversely affect their educational outcomes.  Moreover, the OFIFC reports that:

Children of teen parents have been shown to have lower levels of cognitive and social development.  They are more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect and are three times more likely to be incarcerated in their late teens and early twenties than are children of mothers who delay childbearing.  Children of teen parents are more likely to have children when they become teens.([54])

The policy implication is that there exists a high level of socio-economic need for these young single mothers, particularly with respect to housing, parenting and child care support, transition from social assistance to employment, education assistance and targeted training initiatives.  For Aboriginal youth generally, the promotion of healthy sexual practices is imperative.  For some it can mean the difference between life and death.


The Ma Mawi Chi Iata Centre is a non-profit Aboriginally-controlled organization that that works to provide culturally relevant preventative and support services to Aboriginal children and their families in Winnipeg.

As part of its work in creating healthy choices for youth the Centre runs a program called Positive Adolescent Sexuality Support.

The program has two facilitators that run seven workshops in the Manitoba Youth Centre.  The also visit schools that will allow that kind of education where issues of birth control and sexuality are discussed.

They also run a program called “Baby Think It Over Dolls.” A youth employment component to the program has been recently added.  Two of our facilitators hired 15 youth in the community and trained them to deliver those seven workshops.


We also need to better understand why Aboriginal youth are becoming pregnant and engaging in unhealthy sexual behaviour.  In evidence to us, we heard that many Aboriginal youth who are sexually active at a young age report being sexually abused and having many sexual partners.  Others suggest that young people become pregnant as a way to stem the loneliness:

When we look at the issue of teen pregnancy we know there are different reasons why young Aboriginal want to have families.  When they come into urban centres, it is to replace that sense of belonging that they need.  They are looking to restore their own families.  They need support; they need a sense of family and a sense of belonging.([55])

We appreciate that for some young parents they will find in their community, in themselves, and in each other the resources necessary to raise a healthy and happy child.  We have heard witnesses tell us that teen pregnancy is a value-laden term and we take this into account.  All children are indeed gifts from the Creator, to be cherished, and while some are unplanned, certainly we would not suggest they are unwanted.  Nevertheless, we believe that unhealthy sexual behaviour and youth pregnancy must be examined and addressed.

Children as young as 11 years of age are engaging in sex.  Young girls, yet barely able to care for themselves, are having babies.  Their fathers may or may not stay to raise their offspring.  Over half of all adolescents report not using condoms, or using them ineffectively.  Aboriginal teen pregnancy rates are considerably higher than the national norm and put the health of the mother and child at risk, sexually-transmitted diseases and the number of AIDS related cases are distressingly high in the Aboriginal community, and urgent intervention is necessary.

According to several witnesses, when youth have children they often lack the necessary parenting skills.  In his appearance before the committee, Mr. John Kim Bell stressed the importance of nurturing the parent’s relationship with the child.  He noted that the parenting skills is a key factor in the positive development for any child, but is seriously lacking in Aboriginal communities.  “The parents” Mr. Kim Bell told us “do not seem to be able to support and nurture the children … and it is a cycle that we must break.”  Another witness commented, that we need to:

Encourage more programs and services for young parents, such as counselling, parental classes, information on programs regarding proper diets for their children and themselves, and how to take care of themselves and their children.  As Aboriginal people in residential schools, our parents did not know how to parent us.  I think we have to go back and learn how to be parents.([56])

Accordingly, the Committee recommends that:

Recommended Action

The federal government, through the Minister of Health, and in collaboration with appropriate Aboriginal organizations and youth representatives should:

·        Design and implement a public awareness campaign for Aboriginal youth and pre-teens to address youth sexual health, encourage healthy sexual practices, and the prevention of teen pregnancies.

·        Support community-based education initiatives for youth and pre‑teens on sex, sexuality, pregnancy and parenting.

·        Dedicate sustained resources for community-based youth programs that promote parenting skills.


1.6  Exiting Gang Life:  The Need for a Safe Place to Go

The kids on the street are trying to find their identity, and they are doing it the wrong way.

Mr. Rob Papin,
Edmonton Native Alliance, Founder

The profound cultural, social and economic “dislocation” many Aboriginal youth experience in cities make them especially vulnerable to antisocial and criminal behaviour.  Marginalized and powerless, many Aboriginal youth are left searching for a sense of belonging, community and identity.  Gang affiliation and membership can provide Aboriginal youth with a feeling of empowerment, purpose and acceptance.

The sense of “family” and protection from a harsh environment that gangs provide, however misguided, is a powerful attraction to disenfranchised youth.

With the lack of social cohesion based on common family, community and shared values, many youth develop their own sense of self through the formation of gangs.  Aboriginal youth are looking for someone to connect with and a gang of Aboriginal youth provides a safe place.  Shared culture, racial experience and other forms of oppression lead them to find a family within the urban centre through the gang.  A sense of exclusion based on race and income are common factors that lead to the sustenance of gang culture and activity.([57])

So much of what we see around us is a kind of dysfunctional Aboriginal world – the Aboriginal gangs, for example, are, in a sense, another way of belonging.  They are a formation of community.([58])

In a seminal study by Carol La Prairie, Seen But Not Heard:  Native People in the Inner City, it was found that Aboriginal groups residing in the inner core of large cities are the most vulnerable to the commission of crime and to criminal justice processing.  In troubled, inner-city neighbourhoods, gangs can act as a kind of protection:

Most young people with whom we work believe that becoming gang-related and in trouble with the law is a matter of survival in the ‘hood.’  If you are not a “crip” – and in Regina that is someone who is 13-15 years or older, and a “baby crip” is someone up to the age of 12 – and you are not wearing the gang’s colours or adhering to the gang’s negative direction, harassment and beatings are the result.  I have been in meetings where baby crips and crips are scared.  First, a principal called a meeting, and that really scared them – gathering at the principal’s office.  When word got out about the meeting, there was trouble.([59])

Gangs, then, not only provide a sense of belonging, but ironically, a sense of safety.  In our discussions with some former gang members, we were told that gangs were often their last refuge:  there for them when no one else was.  Membership afforded them shelter, food, money and friendship.

It is difficult to estimate how many Aboriginal youth are affiliated with gangs, and whether that affiliation necessarily always involves criminal behaviour.  Recent estimates suggest that in Winnipeg approximately 2000 Aboriginal youth are involved in gangs, the largest being the Manitoba Warriors and Indian Posse.  In 2003, the Edmonton Aboriginal Youth Gang Task Force reported twelve Aboriginal gangs with more than 400 members are operating in Edmonton .

The issue of gang membership appears to be most acute in the Prairie Provinces.  Western cities have the largest concentrations of Aboriginal people and youth, along with the greatest relative disparity in wealth compared to the non-Aboriginal society.([60])  The stark social and economic stratification in these cities – that is the degree of disadvantage and disparity – contribute significantly to the presence of Aboriginal gangs.  Not surprisingly, then, in eastern cities, where the relative disparity is less pronounced, the emergence of Aboriginal youth gangs has not been as problematic.  This suggests that there is a need to explore policy implications for all governments and possible interventions for the most disadvantaged urban Aboriginal youth, particularly in high-risk cities.

The Edmonton taskforce on gangs reported that little support is available by way of intervention and preventative measures:

No agencies are providing services directly related to Aboriginal gangs in terms of any support, referrals, advocacy and programs.  There is absolutely no evening support, employment or treatment available.  The message we received very strongly and directly from gang members is that there is no way out, no where to hide to feel safe and protected.  Therefore they have little choice but to continue in a negative lifestyle … Members live in extremely disadvantageous conditions with little chance of improvement unless a concerted effort is made by all levels of government and community groups to assist in dealing with this very serious matter.([61])

Despite their necessity, community-based prevention, reintegration programs and safe houses are scarce.

Research also indicates that imprisonment of gang members is ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst as much of the recruitment occurs in jails.  Preventing gang membership in the first place is easier than removing people from the gang once they are in it.([62])  Moreover, exiting gang life can be extremely dangerous:  One witness told that us that his gang turned on him when he attempted to leave:

I was stabbed four times.  I was wanting out of the gang.  That was my own gang that stabbed me, because I wanted out.([63])

Another witness underscored the related need to provide safe places for youth to go to when exiting gang life:

When a kid wants to get out of a gang you have got to find him a safe place for awhile so that he can be protected and so that he can go through the proper procedure and get himself out of the gang, and you have to put him in a place where the gang is not going to go and get him.([64])

The Committee is deeply troubled, based on what we heard, that young Aboriginal people wishing to exit gang life may have no place to turn.

Accordingly, we recommend that:

Recommended Action

The federal government, in collaboration with provincial and municipal governments, and in consultation with Aboriginal organizations, support the establishment of Safe Houses to assist urban Aboriginal youth exit gang life.  Initiatives should be targeted to “high-risk” cities.

We wish to emphasize that the underlying factors contributing to the presence of gangs and criminal behaviour has much to do with the wide-ranging limitations in the lives of Aboriginal youth.  Cultural isolation, racial segregation and the anomie of social structures and supports in many inner-city neighbourhoods must be addressed.  Governments must adopt community-development models, providing for safe and secure housing and economic revitalization measures in urban neighbourhoods most at risk for social disintegration.


1.7  Substance and Alcohol Abuse:
         The Need for Aboriginal Youth Treatment Centres

Drug and alcohol abuse is among the most pressing problems facing Aboriginal youth in urban areas.  Studies estimate that Aboriginal youth are at two to six times higher risk for every alcohol-related problem than their non-Aboriginal counterparts in the Canadian population.

The widespread use of solvents and non-beverage alcohol among Aboriginal children and youth were highlighted by the tragic events at Davis Inlet.  Statistics reveal that one in five Aboriginal youths has used solvents and one-third of users are under the age of 15.  Aboriginal youth aged 15 or over were about 11 times more likely to have ever sniffed solvents or aerosols than the non-Aboriginal respondents and almost twenty-four times more likely than the rest of Canada.

Throughout our hearings, witnesses emphasized the need for measures to assist Aboriginal youth in urban areas deal with substance abuse issues:

If you are going to consider an action plan for change, you do have to address the problems of alcohol and drug abuse.  It is a rapidly growing problem.  The number of Metis youth who drink continues to increase, as does the number of those who use marijuana.  It is a sad fact that they turn to these substances for a source of comfort that they do not find living in urban centres.  The comfort that they seek is just not there for them, and there is no support mechanism in place.([65])

The federal government’s National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP) successfully supports First Nations and Inuit people and their communities in establishing and operating programs aimed at offsetting high levels of drug, alcohol and solvent abuse among target populations living on reserve.

The federal government’s National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP) is an example of a program now largely controlled by First Nations communities and organizations.  The principal objective of the NNADAP is to support First Nations and Inuit people and their communities in establishing and operating programs aimed at arresting and off-setting high levels of alcohol, drug, and solvent abuse among their target populations living on-reserve.

Now in its fifteenth year, the NNADAP includes a network of 54 treatment centres that represent approximately 700 inpatient treatment beds.  As well, there are more than 500 alcohol and other drug abuse community based prevention programs with approximately 650 workers now active in community based prevention activities.  Fully 96% of the NNADAP resources are managed directly by First Nations through contribution and/or transfer agreements.

Culturally and age appropriate treatment centres targeted to Aboriginal youth with drug and alcohol, related problems are badly needed in urban areas.([66])  The federal government’s successful National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program does not, however, extend to Aboriginal people living in urban centres, including the Métis and non-status Indians.

Accordingly, the Committee recommends:

Recommended Action

·        The federal government should act to extend its National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program to include all Aboriginal youth, irrespective of status, residing in urban areas.

·        Funding should be allocated for the establishment of urban Aboriginal youth treatment centres where there is a significant Aboriginal population and be located in areas where they can be readily accessed by yo uth.

·        Treatment centres and services for youth should be age and culturally appropriate.

1.8  Employment and Training:  Long-term Strategies Required

Urban Aboriginal youth experience high levels of unemployment.  According to witnesses, if job opportunities do not expand considerably, the large number of Aboriginal youth entering the labour force over the next decade may pose significant labour market absorption challenges, particularly in the west where Aboriginal youth face a higher risk of unemployment.  As mentioned earlier, unemployment levels are particularly high in Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, Saskatoon and Edmonton.

Aboriginal youth are more likely than non-aboriginal youth to report unemployment with worse outcomes, especially in the Western areas.  In off-reserve locations, the unemployment rate of Aboriginal youth is about 1.7 times higher.  The actual numbers range from about 21 per cent in Calgary to about 42 per cent in Thunder Bay.  As you can see, that number is quite high, even in Calgary.  The normal unemployment rate in Calgary is around 3 or 4 per cent.([67])


According to the Statistics Canada Census (1996), unemployment rates among Aboriginal males in Edmonton are 18.8% as compared to 8.9% of the non-Aboriginal population.  Aboriginal females were unemployed at a rate of 20.6% while their non-Aboriginal counterparts were unemployed at a rate of 8.2%.([68])

Regional and gender variations suggest that Aboriginal youth employment initiatives will need to be flexible enough to respond to these differences.

Employment prospects of Aboriginal young people entering the labour market must be improved.  The Aboriginal population is growing faster than any other segment of Canadian society and by 2006, it is anticipated there will be a working age population of 920,000.([69])  The demographic projections for this group coupled with their socio-economic marginalization from Canadian mainstream society, present serious public policy concerns for governments.  Like most other western nations, Canada’s population is aging and this has implications for its labour force and economy.  Aboriginal youth hold out great promise in being able to meet the demands of Canada’s shrinking labour force.

Witnesses identified a number of barriers to employment for Aboriginal youth.  These include:

·        low levels of education;

·        low or inappropriate skill levels;

·        high levels of mobility and transience;

·        poverty and family dysfunction;

·        discrimination; and

·        sparse job experience.

Governments are starting to recognize the importance of addressing the structural inequities affecting Aboriginal youth employment opportunities.  A growing unemployed underclass of Aboriginal youth can have serious social consequences for the cities in which they live.

The federal government has a number of employment programs specifically targeted to Aboriginal youth.  Some key federal initiatives include:

·        The Youth Employment Strategy (YES) is a federal initiative designed to assist youth in making successful transitions to the labour market ($51 million).

·        The Youth Entrepreneurship Program (YEP) is designed to support Aboriginal youth to become better entrepreneurs.

·        The Aboriginal Human Resources Development Strategy (AHRDS)a five-year $1.6 billion investment (over $300 million a year) designed to increase the employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.  Under the AHRDS, Human Resources Development Canada enters into partnerships with Aboriginal organizations -or Aboriginal Human Resource Development Agreements (AHRDA’s) – allowing them to design, deliver and implement employment and training programs.  The AHRDS sets aside $25 million dollars annually for youth and $30 million is target to urban areas.

According to witnesses, however, the duration of these employment initiatives are too short to be effective.  Thus, while youth may obtain some low level of skill training, fundamental barriers to employment continue to go unresolved:

The barriers to employment were identified by the youth themselves.  They thought that the training programs are not long enough to receive the training that is required to achieve permanent employment.  Their lack of experience limits their employment opportunities.  Again, short-term training programs often do not result in employment opportunities.  The high school dropout rates continue to be high, and the competition for training funds is high among urban Aboriginal youth.([70])

The Canadian economy is no longer based solely on commodities and manufacturing.  Service and information sector jobs comprise a large part of the labour force.  Even traditional entry level jobs such as receptionists, administrative assistants or bank tellers can require significant information and knowledge-management components in the tasks involved; traditional production line manufacturing now require workers to be flexible, adaptive and quick to retrain.  All of these elements have to be considered when discussing training and skill sets required by Aboriginal youth to enter and sustain employment in Canada.

To be effective, Aboriginal youth employment strategies will need to focus on strategic and long-term objectives.  The structural transformation occurring in most major Canadian cities from industrial to high-tech economies require that governments move beyond band-aid solutions toward meaningful, longer-term employment and training initiatives that can foster stable employment for youth in current labour markets.  Training in high tech industries is crucial to bridge the current “digital divide” that separates Aboriginal youth from their counterparts; impeding them from competing in these growing sectors of the economy.

Facilitating and creating partnerships with the private sector are also crucial.  Aboriginal youth are woefully underrepresented in Canada’s private sector workforce:

While Aboriginal people who are working are largely employed by band and tribal councils, Aboriginal organizations and the federal and provincial governments, there is evidence to suggest that a variety of barriers exist that handicap Aboriginals in their ability to acquire the skills that will make them serious competitors for secure and stable employment in all sectors of the economy.([71])


Private Sector Partnerships
Manitoba Hydro:  “The Camp Model”

In order to create an awareness of engineering, technology, and trades career opportunities for youth, Manitoba Hydro implemented the first summer day camp program called Building a Circle, Exploring Engineering Technology and Trades.  The focus is designed for female Aboriginal youth age 13 to 15 to gain meaningful exposure and participation in those fields.  The need for future recruitment for Aboriginal women in historically non?traditional occupations requires initiatives, requires creative initiatives.

It is a four-year, four phase program that mirrors the Aboriginal medicine wheel.  The same group of ten youth will return each year in developmental phases to foster their qualities of curiosity, problem solving, team-work, and creativity.  Throughout the year relationships with youth and families through yearly gatherings and activities are encouraged.

The program is offered for free, so if any Aboriginal young person would choose to participate in the program, they can do so.  It also promotes an awareness in the science and technology fields, as these occupations are not career choice that Aboriginal youth pursue and are at much greater risk for under representation.  It develops and fosters a growing relationship with the camp participants along their education pursuits and career paths.  Staff participation, role modelling, mentoring and advocacy all provide the necessary social and emotional support and encouragement.  It educates and assists not only youth, but also their families in their development and identification of skill competencies and education requirements.  It provides tutoring for math and science, and supports during the high school to university transition.  The underlying hook that makes this program unique and successful is that it provides realistic employment opportunities during and upon completion of the program for our young Aboriginal girls.  The summer program has been an ambitious undertaking and it is a long term investment with long term value and benefits for all stakeholders involved.


In 2001, the report of the Working Group on Aboriginal Participation in the Economy to Federal-Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs and National Aboriginal Leaders, Strengthening Aboriginal Participation in the Economy, found that engaging the private sector in the development of partnerships to promote Aboriginal participation in the economy was vital.  Initiatives such as Winnipeg’s Partners for Careers which works to connect qualified Aboriginal graduates with Manitoba’s employers are meeting with measurable success.  The initiative targets young graduates who experience twice the unemployment rate of non-aboriginal graduates.  In its fourth year, the program has placed more than 2,500 young people who are graduates into employment.

Current labour markets, as mentioned, demand increased skill levels and education attainment.  Long-term, strategic investments in youth employment are therefore critical.  In the words of Manitoba’s Deputy Minister for Aboriginal and Northern Affairs:

We need a comprehensive national strategy for Aboriginal education, training, and employment, that addresses the needs of the public sector as well as the private sector, that is the corporations who create the majority of jobs.  We need to train our young people, and we need to train them to become full participants in the economy.([72])

Accordingly, the Committee recommends that:

Recommended Action

·        Federal programs aimed at increasing labour market participation of Aboriginal youth be should be designed to provide long-term, strategic training in accredited programs for youth.

·        Funding allocated to the youth and urban component of the Aboriginal Human Resources Development Strategy should be increased.

·        The federal government, in collaboration with all principal stakeholders, facilitate forums and initiatives to encourage partnerships between urban Aboriginal youth and the private sector.


Conclusion:  The Way Forward

The Committee appreciates that many of the difficulties experienced by urban Aboriginal youth arise from a number of complex underlying problems.  The symptoms cannot be treated in isolation and must be tackled in a holistic way and integrated with programs that strengthen families.  To be lasting, solutions need to be proactive and preventative, rather than only swinging into action once a problem or need becomes acute.  And while we acknowledge that many urban Aboriginal youth are managing the transition to successful and productive lives as adults, countless others are battling with complex disadvantages.  We stress that young Aboriginal people, by all indicators, are a category most “at risk” and deserving of the government’s highest priority.

Accordingly, the Committee makes the following recommendation:

Recommended Action

·        The federal government, under its Urban Aboriginal Strategy, develop and fund specific initiatives for young Aboriginal people on the basis that they are one of the most “at risk” groups.

·        These initiatives must be designed and developed in collaboration with urban Aboriginal youth.

On a final note, we believe Aboriginal youth may feel less of a sense of alienation when they are meaningfully involved in providing advice to governments on issues that are of most importance to them.  Initiatives, which involve youth in this way, such as the National Aboriginal Youth Strategy, as well as youth advisory councils in government planning and decision-making processes, require our full support and encouragement.  These measures provide youth with a forum to develop, coordinate and manage their own initiatives.  They are also excellent training grounds for the next generation of community leaders .

We are reminded by the plea of one young woman that all Aboriginal youth want is hope.  The way forward is best paved by empowering Aboriginal youth to influence the decisions that most affect their lives while giving them the opportunities to engage meaningfully in the wider community and participate in the benefits so many of us take for granted.

This Committee believes the recommended actions we propose form a basis upon which greater opportunities for urban Aboriginal youth will be realized.  In order to attain these benefits, however, the sustained commitment of all governments and their respective departments is essential.  We note, furthermore, that the implementation of the recommended actions contained in this report involves a number of federal government departments.  Members of this Committee wish to follow the progress of the respective departments in the implementation of these recommendations, and we recommend accordingly, that:

Recommended Action

The agencies and departments of the federal government involved in coordinating and implementing the recommended actions contained in this report prepare an annual review of their actions and progress in this regard and table it before this Committee.


Aboriginal youth living in urban areas face major disadvantages in comparison with other Canadian youth when measured against nearly every social and economic indicator.  We recognize the magnitude of the task to enable Aboriginal youth to participate as equals in the future of this country and become leaders in their own communities.  However large, it is a challenge that we can ill-afford not to meet.

The Committee could not address the full range of urban Aboriginal needs in this one report.  However, two critical issues stand out.  They are:  urban Aboriginal housing needs and unresolved issues surrounding Bill C-31 registrants.  We underline the importance of these issues for urban Aboriginal communities and urge the federal government to deal with them as a matter of priority.

That said, we are encouraged by the emergence of a common awareness in government circles of the need and, increasingly, the mechanisms that need to be put in place, to successfully redress these disadvantages.  We congratulate the governments that have shown leadership and initiative in addressing the needs of young urban Aboriginal.  The Committee notes an increasing willingness among governments to adopt community-based initiatives and rather than imposing solutions or relying on a “one size fits all” approach.  We have noted that there is now a greater emphasis on working with Aboriginal organizations in an attempt to provide coordinated support in a holistic way to communities and youth.  However, there is much more to be done before services are truly flexible enough to respond in an integrated way to the needs of urban Aboriginal people.

The Committee believes that there is no reason cooperative approaches between governments, in close collaboration with Aboriginal communities, cannot overcome the structural impediments to Aboriginal advancement.  We note with concern, however, that the current policy and program landscape is disjointed.  In order for governments to clearly identify the needs of Aboriginal people and youth, there must be a clear sense of what programming exists and where there are gaps.  Accordingly, the Committee has recommended that a scan of programs be undertaken and a national “clearing house” be established.

The Committee has also found that facilitating partnerships between the private sector, governments and Aboriginal organization is necessary to open up vital job opportunities for urban Aboriginal youth.  Without meaningful employment, it is difficult to see how we can break the cycle of poverty, dependence and frustration so many youth experience.  We urge governments to take a longer-term approach to employment initiatives so that youth can obtain the qualifications appropriate in meeting the demands of today’s labour market.

The Committee was impressed by the work of local Aboriginal organizations and the innovative initiatives they have implemented to help their youth succeed.  Many of the potential solutions governments seek to address the challenges in urban Aboriginal communities rest with these dedicated professionals.  We must support Aboriginal organizations and agencies, friendship centres and other community organizations in their efforts to provide services for urban Aboriginal youth.  We are particularly grateful to them for sharing with us their knowledge, experience and wisdom.  It is our sincere hope that this report reflects their concerns, their challenges as well as their suggestions for moving the agenda forward.

We were especially struck by the quiet determination of the youth we heard from to deal with the issues confronting them.  These youth have shown remarkable resilience in overcoming personal and systemic challenges.  We have much to learn from their courage and strength.  This Committee is confident in their abilities, talents and vision.  As policy-makers, it is incumbent upon us to provide them with the opportunities, and encouragement to put their talents into practice.  We – all of us – have much to gain in so doing.  This report is for them.

([1])     Proceedings, 16 April, Dwight Dorey, National Chief, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

([2])     Proceedings, 11 June 2002, Matthew Coon Come, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations.

([3])     Proceedings, 18 February 2003, Mr. Randy Jackson, Aboriginal Persons Living HIV/AIDS Coordination Programs, Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network.

([4])     Canada, Acting on What We Know:  Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations, Report of the Advisory Group on Suicide Prevention.

([5])     Proceedings, 1 April 2003, Anne Lesage, Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre.

([6])     Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Winnipeg Youth Round Table, Mr. Jon Henderson, Youth Project Coordinator, Keewatin Winnipeg Youth Initiative.

([7])     Proceedings, 12 February 2003, Mr. John Potskin.

([8])     PCO, Urban Aboriginal Strategy:  An Analysis, p. 1.

([9])     Proceedings, 18 March 2003, Vancouver Roundtable, Ms. Ginger Gosnell.

([10])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003,Winnipeg Youth Round Table, Mr. Ron Chartrand.

([11])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Winnipeg Round Table, youth participant.

([12])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Winnipeg Youth Round Table, Ms. Tracey Bradburn.

([13])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Kathleen McKay, AMC Youth Council, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

([14])    Proceedings, 4 June 2002, Ms. Jelena Golic, Youth Intervenor, Native Women’s Association of Canada.

([15])    Urban Native Youth Association, Submission.

([16])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Jerry Adams, Urban Native Youth Association.

([17])    Proceedings, 18 March 2003, Vancouver Youth Round Table, Ms. Amy Parent.

([18])    Nova Lawson, Submission, p. 3.

([19])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Elaine Cowan, President, Anokiiwin Group.

([20])    Nova Lawson, Submission.

([21])    Manitoba Indian Education, Submission, p. 6.

([22])    Proceedings, 17 June 2003, Mr. Calvin Hanselmann.

([23])    Proceedings, 27 November 2001, Mr. Fred Caron.

([24])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Gail Sparrow, Musqueam First Nation.

([25])    New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, Submission.

([26])    Proceedings, 11 February 2003, Mr. John Potskin.

([27])    Proceedings, 30 April 2002, Ms. Gail Valaskakis.

([28])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Ms. Gail Sparrow.

([29])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Misty Thomas, Night Hoops Basketball Program.

([30])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Daryl Bruce, Executive Director, Manitoba Sports and Recreational Council.

([31])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Ms. Misty Thomas.

([32])    Proceedings, 5 February 2003, Ryan McMahon, Youth Coordinator, Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

([33])    Proceedings, 19 March 2003, Ms. Gail Sparrow.

([34])    Canada, Report of the Auditor General of Canada, April 2000, p. 13.

([35])    Canada, Final Report of the Minister’s National Working Group on Education, Our Children:  Keepers of the Sacred Knowledge, December 2002.

([36])    Our Children:  Keepers of the Sacred Knowledge.

([37])    2001 Census figures, Statistics Canada.  39% had less than high school, compared with 45% in 1996.

([38])    Proceedings, 1 April 2003, Ms. Anne Lesage.

([39])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Rob Campre, Director, Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee.

([40])    House of Commons, Sub-committee on Aboriginal Education of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Sharing the Knowledge, Second Session of the Thirty-Fifth Parliament, June 1996.

([41])    Taking Pulse, Submission.

([42])    Proceedings, 4 February 2003, Murray Hamilton, Program Coordinator, Gabriel Dumont Institute.

([43])    Nova Lawson, Submission.

([44])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Pam Sparklingeyes, Cultural Coordinator, Alberta Learning Centre.

([45])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Sean McGuiness, Principal, Ben Calf Robe School.

([46])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Eva Stang, NAIT.

([47])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Mr. Sean McGuiness.

([48])    Nova Lawson, Submission.

([49])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Shirley McNeil, Assistant Principal, Amiskwacix Academy.

([50])    Proceedings, 21 March 2003, Ms. Pam Sparkling Eyes.

([51])    Our Children:  Keepers of the Sacred Knowledge, p. 8.

([52])    OFIFC. Press Release.

([53])    The federal government maintains that the provision of health care to status Indians is a matter of custom and policy rather than a treaty right. Universal hospital and medical insurance now provides a basis for the delivery of health services to Aboriginal people through the provincial health care systems. The Medical Services Branch of Health Canada provides public health services and non-insured health benefits for First Nations communities and Inuit.

([54])    Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, Tenuous Connections.

([55])    Proceedings, 1 April 2003, Ms. Anne Lesage.

([56])    Proceedings, 12 February 2003, Mr. John Potskin.

([57])    Proceedings, 4 June 2002, Ms. KukdookaTerri Brown, President, Native Womens Association of Canada.

([58])    Proceedings, 30 April 2002, Ms. Gail Valaskakis.

([59])    Proceedings, 12 February 2003, Tom Warner, Executive Director, Regina Native Youth Community Services.

([60])    Statistics Canada 2002 report, Youth in Canada, indicated that that the largest concentrations of Aboriginal youth are found in the western provinces:  16% in Manitoba; 14% in Saskatchewan; 6% in Alberta; and 5% in British Columbia.

([61])    Final Report, Edmonton Aboriginal Youth Gang Task Force, March 2003.

([62])    As reported by the Solicitor General, youth also join gangs when they are in jail (where gang recruitment is active) for their own safety. When they are released some try to leave the gang, but this is hard to do.

([63])    Proceedings, 20 March 2003, Edmonton Youth Round Table, Edmonton Winnipeg Native Alliance.

([64])    Proceedings, 20 March 2003, Edmonton Youth Round Table, Mr. Unternerei, Edmonton Gang Task Force.

([65])    Proceedings, 23 April 2002, Ms. Jennifer Brown, Chair, Métis National Youth Advisory Council, Métis National Council.

([66])    Proceedings, 18 February 2003, Leona Quewezance, Health Promotion Coordinator, All Nations Hope Aboriginal AIDS Network.

([67])    Proceedings, 20 November 2001, Phil Jensen, Assistant Deputy Minister, Employment Programs Branch, Department of Human Resources Development Canada.

([68])    Native Counselling Services of Alberta, Submission, p. 6.

([69])    Taking Pulse, Submission.

([70])    Proceedings, 19 February 2003, Nancy Martin, Executive Director, Mizwe Biik Aboriginal Employment and Training.

([71])    Taking Pulse, Submission, p. 5.

([72])    Proceedings, 17 March 2003, Harvey Bostrum, Deputy Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Government of Manitoba.

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