Bridging the gap with financial literacy for Indigenous Peoples

November 16, 2018

By Simon Brascoupé, co-chair, Financial Literacy Working Group for Indigenous Peoples

(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail, Report on Business, on October 23, 2018)

A recent OECD report found that, as a group, Indigenous Peoples face numerous barriers when it comes to employment and successful skills training. That same report also found that outcomes are dramatically improved when people gain access to Indigenous-led programs.

In fact, Canada has reached a pivotal moment when it comes to the importance of culturally adapted programs by and for Indigenous Peoples. Youth now represent nearly half the Indigenous population. The University of Montreal’s Dr. Simona Bignami has argued that this population boom represents the potential for a huge “demographic dividend,” but only if we seize the moment. To put it simply, if we invest now in education and training by and for Indigenous youth – and help them find jobs – our entire economy will benefit.  If we don’t, it won’t.

How big could the dividends be? Recent research by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board suggests that if the workforce included all working-age Indigenous Peoples in Canada, it could potentially contribute $27.7 billion to the Canadian economy. That’s just one measure. The potential dividends for community economic development and nation-building are also significant.

But we won’t get more First Nations, Inuit and Metis people into employment if we don’t address a missing piece of the educational puzzle. When we look at training programs for Indigenous adults, there is a gap when it comes to education around basic money skills, and financial literacy and financial wellness more broadly. If we don’t level this playing field, many Indigenous Peoples will remain unemployable, or, if they are employed, they may face financial challenges that they struggle to meet.

This is why I’ve recently agreed to serve as co-chair of the newly-formed Financial Literacy Working Group for Indigenous Peoples. My co-chair is Jane Rooney, Canada’s Financial Literacy Leader at the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC). The goal of the working group is to collaborate to find ways to improve the financial literacy of Indigenous Peoples.

The work is already underway with a key pilot for adult financial literacy, announced October 1st, which will be tested in northwestern Ontario in early 2019. Three working group members have collaborated on this important project: FCAC, the Martin Family Initiative led by the Right Honourable Paul Martin, and Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI). The program has developed culturally relevant materials to meet the needs of SGEI students, and will comprise 20 hours of learning. Those hours will be seamlessly incorporated into a pre-employment and essential skills training program already being delivered by SGEI instructors. The focus will be on basic skills such as budgeting, banking, and credit and debt management. 

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of these skills, but if we are to bring Indigenous education and employment opportunities up to the same level as those of non-Indigenous Canadians, we need to account for certain realities. As Brent Tookenay, the CEO of Seven Generations has noted, something as simple as not having a bank account that allows automatic deposit can be a big barrier to employment. And when one has not received a steady income in the past, the knowledge, skills and confidence to manage that income flow may simply not be in place.

Beyond that, my work with AFOA Canada (formerly the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association) has shown that the demand for financial managers in First Nations communities continues to grow. Our recent conference in Ottawa had 1,000 attendees; and as the population boom comes of age we will need ever more professionals to fill these roles. Financial, management and leadership education are a key part of preparing the next generation.

Creating and testing this pilot is a small step, but an important one. Its success will depend on our ability to listen to feedback from students and teachers, evaluate our results, and co-develop programs with Indigenous Peoples. The partners hope to apply what they learn to create a flexible program that can be adapted to a variety of needs by and for Indigenous communities. 

At this time, there is tremendous momentum to strengthen the financial literacy across all ages and demographic groups in Canada. For example, secondary students in every province and territory are now receiving some form of financial education as part of their standard curriculum. As the financial world grows ever more complex, and with the acceleration of digital banking and other online products and services, Indigenous Peoples are at risk of being left behind. We need to address this key piece of the educational puzzle if we want to continue to bring Indigenous Peoples from poverty to prosperity.

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