Income gap persists for aboriginal Canadians

Income disparity between Canada's aboriginal people and their non-aboriginal counterparts is decreasing but remains "significant and troubling" and will continue for decades without government support, a new report says.

Income disparity between aboriginal people and other Canadians is decreasing but remains "significant and troubling" and will continue for decades without government support, a new study suggests.

Without government support, it will take 63 years for the income gap between First Nations, Métis and Inuit and their non-aboriginal counterparts to disappear, says the non-partisan research institute Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which did the study.

The findings are based on the median incomes of aboriginal people found in census data going back to 1996.

In 1996, the median income of aboriginal Canadians was $12,003 — $9,428 lower than the median income of other Canadians. Five years later, the median aboriginal income had grown to $16,036, but was still $9,045 behind that of other Canadians.

By 2006, the gap had narrowed to $8,135, when the median income of aboriginal Canadians was $18,962.

Reason for hope

Aboriginal people tend to make less regardless of sex, location or education level with one major exception, the study found: the 14 per cent of aboriginal women with at least an undergraduate degree tend to earn $2,471 more than non-aboriginal women with the same education level.

The report calls this discrepancy "a phenomenon," but one that gives "reason for hope," said Dan Wilson, who co-wrote the report. 

The report acknowledges "that educational attainment among aboriginal people lags well behind averages for the Canadian population as a whole" and that non-aboriginal Canadians "are still far more likely to complete high school and to get a university degree" than aboriginal Canadians.

In 2006, eight per cent of aboriginal men and 14 per cent of aboriginal women had earned a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 25 per cent of non-aboriginal men and 28 per cent of non-aboriginal women.

"But you shouldn't need to simply be a BA holder or a master's holder before you can get comparable income," Wilson said.

First Nations University of Canada has its main campus in Regina and satellite campuses in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

"While education is a driver for income levels in all groups, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, no community is made up entirely of university degree-holders, nor should they be expected to be."

Instead, "there must be jobs available across sectors, pay levels must be roughly equivalent and workforce entrants must be greeted without bias and suspicion," the report said.

The Conservatives are "already engaging in a new approach to providing support for First Nations and Inuit post-secondary experience," according to Margot Geduld, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs.

In 2008-2009, the government spent $300 million on post-secondary education for an estimated 22,000 First Nations students, Geduld said, with further funding set aside in the 2010 budget.

But the report suggests that's not enough.

To erase the gap, the government should abandon its "traditional colonial style" of imposing "ideas that worked for the dominant culture," the report said, in favour of allowing communities to develop their own educational and training strategies.

It will also require a major shift away from what the report calls "the colonial administration of aboriginal communities" by the Canadian government.

Geduld said the ministry is reviewing the report.