New data released this week is providing an unprecedented look at life in First Nation communities, including indigenous languages, cultural beliefs, education and employment levels.

More than 21,000 children, youth and adults from 250 First Nation communities across Canada took part in a massive survey called the First Nations Regional Early Childhood, Education and Employment Survey (FNREEES).

The survey was conducted by indigenous researchers with a non-profit organization called the First Nation Information Governance Centre (FNIGC), which released preliminary data this week at a conference in Ottawa.

"It's a very rich data source that we're just really starting to get a good look at," said Gail McDonald, executive director of the FNIGC.

Some key findings so far:

  • Just over 20 per cent of First Nations members commute outside of their community for work.
  • Nearly 80 per cent of First Nations members work within their community.
  • Over 40 per cent of on-reserve jobs are "governance related," such as working for the band office.
  • Among First Nations adults, 43 per cent had less than a high school diploma, 32 per cent had a high school diploma and 24 per cent had completed some post-secondary education.

The survey also gave a snapshot of First Nations culture and language among children and youth who live on reserves.

  • Ninety per cent of First Nation parents reported that their children's school was supportive of First Nations culture.
  • Nearly half of children reported regularly attending cultural activities, often more than once a month.
  • Twenty-eight per cent of children are exposed to First Nation language in their community, while 18 per cent reported a First Nation as their mother tongue.

"Everyone wanted to know so much about these areas because there is such a gap in information," McDonald said.

Government and other agencies can use the information to guide policies and programs aimed at First Nation people but she says that ultimately, First Nations are the ones who own the data.

"It's a survey developed by First Nations, for First Nations," McDonald said. "We're only the repository for that data."

Ontario regional chief Isadore Day also welcomed the survey results, which he said "reconfirms that our children, youth and adults are determined to seek a better future for themselves through education and long-term employment, while retaining their language and culture."

Day also called the findings "encouraging" but said it shows the importance of increasing funding for First Nations education.

More data will be published in the coming months but the final, complete results of the First Nations Regional Early Childhood, Education and Employment Survey are expected to be released in March 2016.