Aboriginal women create hope from tragedy
There is a little-known flip side to the requiem for Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women.
It is a song of resilience. Since 2007, aboriginal women have outperformed every other group in the Canadian labour market. Their employment rate has risen. Their participation rate has gone up. Best of all, they are landing well-paying jobs in finance, real estate and education.
"This trend appears likely to continue," said Brian DePratto, the economist at the Toronto-Dominion Bank who made the surprising discovery. "As a result, the aboriginal female population represents an emerging pool of skilled talent for Canadian employers."
Until DePratto's research was published on July 6, it was widely assumed that the earnings gap between Aboriginal Peoples and the rest of the population was sizable and persistent. That fed the perception First Nations were caught in an endless cycle of poverty, joblessness and family violence. So did the demand by the Native Women's Association of Canada for a national inquiry into disappearances and deaths of 1,750 indigenous women.
But at the family level, aboriginal women who had once accepted the inevitability of privation were telling their daughters to stay in school, get a stable job and break the century-old cycle. The millennial generation took this advice to heart, graduating from college and university in greater numbers than their male counterparts and narrowing the gap between themselves and nonaboriginal women.
As of 2011 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 35 per cent of aboriginal women had some form of post-secondary education, compared to 28 per cent for aboriginal men. The rate for aboriginal women living off-reserve climbed to 46.6 per cent. That is just 6 percentage points below the rate for non-aboriginal women.
This progress translated into better job prospects and a higher standard of living. But the gains were not evenly distributed. Only 16.5 per cent of Inuit women got past high school. For women living in First Nations the rate was 31.2 per cent. For Métis women, it was 42.7 per cent. Although urban aboriginal women fared best, DePratto is not convinced that indigenous peoples must leave their communities to succeed. "It (the report) argues for innovative education solutions that can reach people in these areas whether through distance education or other techniques," he said in an interview.
His primary source of information was the 2011 National Household Survey, a publication that has been analyzed by dozens of economists from the federal and provincial governments, academe, think-tanks and non-profit organizations. How did he spot the good news they missed?
DePratto thinks it might have something to do with expectations. "Before beginning the project, I had the notion that aboriginal women were seeing gains in employment, wages and so on. But (the evidence) was to a large extent anecdotal, which often isn't borne out in the data," he explained. "It was great to see that the picture of the aboriginal female labour market was indeed as strong as I had been told."
It took a lot of work to disaggregate the numbers in the National Household Survey (NHS). First he separated the genders. Then he subdivided the aboriginal population into various groups. Finally, he supplemented Ottawa's voluntary census (the Conservative government scrapped the more reliable mandatory version in 2010) with other databases.
When he looked at the indicators, the pattern was unmistakable. Employment growth was stronger for aboriginal women than any other demographic group. Off-reserve aboriginal women were in the vanguard. They were moving rapidly into finance, insurance, real estate, professional services and education.
DePratto acknowledges that Aboriginal Peoples still face enormous challenges. Too many parents are in jail. Too many kids are under child protection. Too many communities lack decent housing, safe schools and clean water. Aboriginal men trail their non-aboriginal counterparts in employment and income by a sizable margin. Despite their progress, aboriginal women haven't caught up to their nonaboriginal peers. But he remains optimistic. "The relatively young nature of the population suggests that these gaps will continue to close."
This is a welcome counterpoint to the achingly familiar lament for Canada's lost aboriginal women. It doesn't atone for the mistakes of the past or fix the nation's broken relationship with its original inhabitants. But it blows to smithereens the stereotype of aboriginal women as underachievers, prostitutes or victims.