Abo­rig­i­nal women cre­ate hope from tragedy

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Carol Goar Carol Goar is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

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.

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