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Research reveals discrimination, explodes stereotypes.

A recent report on the socioeconomic conditions of Aboriginal peoples in Canada has produced more than a few surprises, while at the same time confirming some long-suspected truths.

Michael Mendelson, a senior scholar at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy in Toronto, authored the report, entitled, "A qualitative overview of Canadian Aboriginal peoples socioeconomic conditions." He said during a phone interview on March 18, that he responded to a request for proposal from the federal Human Resources Department, did the research as a private consultant, and not on behalf of the Caledon Institute, and submitted his report to the government on June 5, 2006.

Occasional Hill Times columnist and Ottawa-based freedom of information specialist Ken Rubin found the report and provided it to Winnipeg Free Press Ottawa correspondent Paul Samyn, whose story on the report's findings was published on March 3--two weeks before the federal budget speech.

Mendelson said the Free Press story portrayed his work in a worrisome manner. He said he was happy to explain his findings to Windspeaker, because he felt the Winnipeg paper got some parts of it wrong.

A couple of minor factual errors created the impression that the Caledon Institute was hired by the Harper government to produce work that the Conservatives could use to justify not spending new money on Aboriginal programs.

Politicians or bureaucrats often leak news stories in the days before a significant political event like a federal budget to test public reaction to new policies or to influence public opinion.

Mendelson stated very definitely that he was not trying to help the Conservative government justify any new approach to Aboriginal policy.

"I am non-partisan. I'm not part of any party, but I certainly couldn't be accused personally of being a Conservative," he said.

Mendelson has held many senior public service positions prior to his appointment to the Caledon Institute, including deputy minister of the Cabinet Office in Ontario and secretary to Treasury Board and deputy minister of Social Services in Manitoba. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Toronto School of Social Work and a visiting fellow at Queen's University School of Policy Studies.

He said mainstream observers are misinterpreting one key line in the report:

"Perhaps the most surprising finding is that the participation rate of Aboriginal workers is almost as high as the total population's participation rate."

In other words, the data showed that the percentage of Aboriginal people who are working or actively looking for work is comparable with mainstream numbers. With employment participation rates being similar between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, the report has uncovered statistical proof that Aboriginal people do not, as the racial stereotype goes, just sit around taking government handouts.

"Absolutely! And that was the point," he said, sounding delighted that one of the most important discoveries of his research had finally been noticed. "I don't know how it got turned around. I didn't construct the data. The data is what it is. But looking at the participation data, I was very surprised to see the extent of the participation rate and it does reverse the stereotype. It does indicate that people aren't sitting around waiting to collect welfare."

His research looks at census numbers from 1996 and 2001. Although the 2006 census numbers were released on March 13, the specific analysis of Aboriginal population numbers will not appear for several months.

"It will be very interesting to see whether some trends, such as the increasing participation rate, continue," he said.

But the analysis of the older data still revealed some interesting facts.

He said the numbers show that people are not, as is currently the thinking in public policy circles, fleeing reserves for the cities.

Instead the numbers show that the population in all sectors--on reserve and off reserve--is growing significantly.

"My point in looking at the data was to see whether or not there was a reduction in population on reserves and there isn't," said Mendelson.

"People leaving reserves to go to cities has been used as a justification for cutting funding on reserves. I don't know how you would get out of that that this data would be part of a plot to reduce funding to reserves. It's exactly the opposite."

The study of workforce participation numbers revealed that some regions are doing better than others.

"In almost all the data, Manitoba and Saskatchewan stand out as the worst in the country. I think there's a mix of reasons. Some of it has to do with the number of isolated com-munities as a percentage of total population, and the size of the reserve population compared to the non-reserve population, which is larger in Saskatchewan and Manitoba," he said. "But there's no question that there's discrimination.

Anybody who's lived on the Prairies knows that. It's not just personal discrimination. I also think there's systemic discrimination, employers automatically making an assumption that an Aboriginal person isn't going to be reliable or something." He noticed that Aboriginal men seem to be the victim of bias.

"In communities where there's been a history of discrimination, as with blacks in the United States or Native people in Canada, it is often the case that females do better than males, relatively speaking," Mendelson explained. "Men still do better than women, even in the Aboriginal community but the relative gender equality is higher in the Aboriginal community, which is sort of good thing but it's also a bad thing because it reflects an underlying reality."

The bias leads to economic marginalization and that has historically prevented Aboriginal people from generating wealth. Mendelson discovered that the statistical difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in income from investment is balanced almost exactly by the slightly larger reliance by Aboriginal people on government transfer payments. But on average, the income from employment is about the same for Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people.

"It was very interesting to me that the percentage of income coming from employment was the same, which is again I think a reversal of the stereotype," he said.

One of the most important findings in the report was that Aboriginal people are lagging far behind in high school graduation rates. Mendelson believes that increasing the number of high school graduates is key. And that means, he added, that the reasons why First Nation students are dropping out of high school must be examined and understood.

"It's bad. It's really bad. It's one of the most negative trends in Canadian life today. I think we should be devoting incredible national energy to resolving this problem. Unfortunately, I don't think that there's any easy solution. Social conditions also play a role," he said.

"I call it a national emergency. It's a money issue partially, but it's not just a money issue. It's something that government's got to deal with, but it's also something that First Nations have to deal with as well."

The researcher again felt the need to head off any mistaken conclusions that might be drawn from his work.

"I'd just like to start by making it clear that there's nothing in my report that suggests that you can cut post-secondary support for Aboriginal people going to universities or community colleges. In fact, it's the reverse. It just shows how important it is that everyone who does get in, needs to have every opportunity and chance to finish," he said. "I've been worried that my report has been used to suggest that there's some justification for cuts, that we don't have to worry about post-secondary funding because once a kid gets into community college he's just as likely to finish as a non-Aboriginal kid. But that's with the existing supports. If you withdraw those supports or you reduce them--and you know they are being reduced because funding is capped at two per cent--it's dangerous."

By Paul Barnsley

Windspeaker Staff Writer

COPYRIGHT 2007 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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