Even in a place not particularly known for a large aboriginal population, the future of First Nations is of the utmost importance.
This was former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine’s message on Wednesday at Red Deer College. Fontaine was the 16th speaker in RDC’s Perspectives: Canada in the World lecture series.
“The world around us is changing,” Fontaine said in a media scrum after an afternoon talk with RDC students. “There’s a growing awareness of aboriginal people and . . . that we actually matter a great deal.”
In his Perspectives address, Fontaine struck hopeful notes, listing the number of First Nations professionals now at work all over the country.
“We now have approximately 30,000 First Nations students in universities across the country. That’s a significant jump,” Fontaine said in an earlier interview. “Too many people are too negative about aboriginal people. At this moment, I hope we’re able to instill some pride and confidence.”
Fontaine said that with an aging labour force, many sectors in Canada are being forced to go overseas for workers. But 50 per cent of the aboriginal population, he said, is under the age of 25, and aboriginals are the fastest growing population in Canada.
“This represents a tremendous opportunity for our country, but it has to be properly developed,” Fontaine said. “That means good education (and) training opportunities.”
One of the major themes in Fontaine’s Perspectives address was the importance of First Nations to the national economy. He claimed that the total cost of “aboriginal marginalization” amounted to one per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product.
“This cost is collectively burdened” and will continue to rise as long as current government policies stay in place, he said.
“You can have high unemployment rates, say, in Prince Albert or Lac La Biche, but the cost is not just shouldered by people who live in poverty . . . It’s important for the people in Red Deer to develop an appreciation of that,” said Fontaine, adding that if certain conditions are met — land claims settlements, increased awareness of past mistakes like the residential schools system — aboriginal people can turn their economic fortunes around.
Fontaine played a major part in the settlement agreement and government apology for residential schools.