More than 350,000 Indigenous youth were born in Canada in the first decade of the 21st century.

This new generation enjoys better access to education and technology than any before, but also faces unique economic barriers as it enters a workforce profoundly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Canada, the potential benefits, and risks, are enormous. The Indigenous population has been growing at four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, and today more than half of First Nations and Inuit people are under the age of 30. Even before the pandemic, though, their economic pathways were broken. The probabilities of employment for First Nations youth were only 75% (and 87% for Metis), compared to 90% for non-Indigenous people.

This new generation of Indigenous youth will be critical to the economic recovery. The nature of the recovery will also be critical to their prosperity. According to a new study by the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business and the Diversity Institute of Ryerson University, the Canadian economy stands to gain $27.7 billion through better engagement of Indigenous youth. But not if we follow business as usual.

We know the past decade transformed our economy, and world, through rapid advances in mobile communications, cloud computing and artificial intelligence. We anticipate these technology platforms will become even more powerful, and essential to a post-COVID economy. And as we design and fund policies for the recovery, we need to appreciate how this accelerated change can impact Indigenous youth.

To better understand and inform the choices ahead, RBC’s Thought Leadership group has held a series of roundtables through the crisis, with Indigenous youth, educators and employers, as part of a long-term research initiative. The latest roundtable, on June 23, was co-chaired by RBC CEO Dave McKay and National Chief Perry Bellegarde, to hear from First Nations chiefs and Indigenous business leaders on what their communities and youth need in order to better prepare for a digitally-enabled recovery.

While the group felt self-government remains the greatest challenge — and greatest opportunity for unlocking the economic potential of Indigenous communities — we know this commitment may require years more effort to fulfil. In the meantime, there are several concrete steps Canada can take to position this new generation for success. Here are five actionable ideas that emerged:

1. Strengthen school-to-work linkages

While high school completion rates among Indigenous youth improved significantly between 2006 and 2016, university completion rates worsened compared to non-Indigenous youth. One reason: poor employment for Indigenous students, especially in the service sectors. About 20% of the Indigenous workforce is employed in trades, transportation and equipment operations, compared to about 15% for the non-Indigenous population. By contrast, only 5.5% are employed in management positions, compared to 9% for the non-Indigenous workforce, and the gap is growing.

As employers begin to rebuild and rehire, and governments commit billions to economic reconstruction, creating more workforce linkages for Indigenous students will be critical. This can start with more internships, co-ops and mentorships that cultivate both workplace skills and help youth develop meaningful aspirations. These experiences also create stronger links for youth to local labour markets. This approach to human capital needs to extend further into businesses, too, to ensure better Indigenous representation on corporate boards, participation in collective bargaining and access to training funds that should be part of all development projects.

2. Build connected infrastructure

Most Canadians take connectivity for granted. For Indigenous Canadians, that’s not the case. Nearly half of the status First Nations population lives on reserves, many of which are disconnected from the digital economy. A lack of reliable access to broadband not only limits commercial activity for Indigenous businesses; it constrains access to online learning, telehealth and remote work. The digital infrastructure for remote communities needs to be completed, no later than the federal promise of 2030, and in a way that anticipates future demands on networks.

Indigenous ownership over infrastructure projects — digital, transportation, healthcare or energy — can strengthen the self-sufficiency of communities by providing diversified revenue and long-term employment. Building these connections will be exponentially more important to community prosperity in the post-COVID era where e-commerce is becoming the preference for many consumers, and big employers look to more distributed workforce models.

3. Rethink supply chains through Indigenous procurement

Cross-border disruptions during the COVID lockdowns highlighted vulnerabilities within essential supply chains, particularly healthcare equipment. As public and private sectors consider on-shoring sourcing of these and other goods, there is plenty of opportunity to launch new procurement partnerships with Indigenous firms across Canada.

The capacity to innovate among Indigenous-owned businesses is strong, as evident in how many mobilized to produce personal protective equipment for their communities. Greater integration into corporate procurement also would create better outlets for services-based businesses to grow and diversify, from graphics design and payroll services to engineering and management consulting.

4. Accelerate low-carbon transition

The post-COVID reset will bring sustainable development into clearer focus; considering the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Canadians will be looking for better ways of balancing economic development and environmental stewardship. The transition to a low-carbon economy will take a phased approach — particularly in our resource-rich country — and doing so will rely on Indigenous knowledge.

By making the proper investments now in their education and technologies, Indigenous youth can play a central role in developing the green-collar jobs of the 2020s and beyond. Many of them can become the climate experts of tomorrow, if given the chance to both gain traditional land-based training and cultivate skills in advanced technologies.

5. Expand capital-raising capacity

Securing capital has long been a hurdle for Indigenous businesses. While financial institutions have significantly increased capital availability, Indigenous enterprises still do not operate on a level playing field. Increasing access to credit will remain key to financing start-ups and the small business ecosystem that drives the Canadian economy, including in Indigenous communities; doing this well through the economic recovery requires funders to become enablers by engaging within communities and forging two-way communication.

Yet, securing lasting prosperity in Indigenous communities will take bigger, bolder moves. Settling land claims is one channel to do so, while creating a culture of institutional investing is another. Greater access to equity markets will help to create own-source revenue, with shared stakes in successful infrastructure, development and resources. Linking these investments to skill development and succession planning may build inter-generational wealth.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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