Preventing these two problems from becoming one solution is an endemic skills mismatch, specifically a shortage of Aboriginal Peoples trained in the booming STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines.

A rising tide of tech jobs

“Industry and business have recognized that, as part of their engagement in Northern communities, they need to provide local employment opportunities,” says Doug Dokis of the Aboriginal Outreach Program at Actua, a charity organization focused on encouraging and enabling Canadian youth to pursue STEM sector careers. However, the jobs being created are largely in the natural and applied sciences, and these jobs are skewing towards requiring a much higher degree of education.

“Historically speaking, the educational system has not been supportive of Aboriginal Peoples”

According to the Aboriginal Labour Market Performance Report, Aboriginal employment in the natural and applied sciences dropped 7 percent over a recent five-year period, even while non-Aboriginal employment in the same field increased by 8.1 percent. This rising tide is selectively lifting non-Aboriginal boats due primarily to a shortage of Aboriginal Peoples completing university degrees, particularly in STEM fields.

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Setting the stage for success
Photo: ACTUA

A difficult educational legacy

“Historically speaking, the educational system has not been supportive of Aboriginal Peoples,” Mr. Dokis reminds us. “We are only one generation out of the residential schools.” Empowering Aboriginal youth to consider STEM careers, and to pursue the lengthy education that leads to them, requires a special kind of support.

At universities throughout Canada, there are scholarships available for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people looking to enter science and engineering programs, but when Aboriginal youth give up on science and math early in their high school careers, there is no one to claim them.

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An opportunity for Aboriginal youth and for Canada

“A lot of youth think science is just a subject in school and it’s not relevant to them,” says Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua. “But actually, it’s all around them.” This local and cultural relevance has turned out to be the key. Showing youth how their community knowledge — animal migration, water treatment, housing construction, forestry — is intrinsically tied to math and science has been one of the most successful tactics for promoting an interest in STEM fields. When youth are connected with successful Aboriginal mentors, the positive outcome skyrockets.

More Aboriginal youth pursuing an education in STEM fields will not only open doors for them personally and benefit their communities, but will be also a great boom for the Canadian industry as a whole. Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing population in the country, and each day new tech jobs are being created. 

Filling those jobs with qualified workers is vital to Canada’s economy, and best of all would be to fill them with people who can bring fresh perspectives.  Flanagan puts it succinctly: “we will not achieve our full potential in STEM fields if we don’t have diverse voices around the table.”