HALIFAX – A new report showing Atlantic Canada’s indigenous communities pour more than $1.1 billion in direct spending into the regional economy disproves conventional myths about the state of reserves and their residents, said the study’s co-chair.
“We’re not a sinkhole of money,” John. G. Paul told a news conference in Halifax.
“As we build a better future I can tell you that every community or person that lives near us or around us will also benefit equally. I think that bodes well for Atlantic Canada.”
Conducted for the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat, the study released Wednesday aims to highlight the importance of emerging economic opportunities.
“The economic activities being pursued . . . are as diverse as the communities in which they are conducted,” says the study.
“The breadth of the multifaceted activity taking place …speaks compellingly to the imperative to dispel the myth that contemporary Indigenous economic activity is largely confined to gas bars, tobacco, gaming and convenience stores.
Businesses are big, small, new, long-standing, innovative, mainstream and cutting edge.”
The sectors vary from conventional resource-based industries such as fisheries and forestry to emerging areas such as renewable energy and IT.
The study, authored by Group ATN Consulting says the indigenous economy creates more than 16,700 full time equivalent employment positions and contributes $184.5 million in overall tax revenues. Nearly $711 million in household income is also generated.
Conducted over last fall and winter, the study draws on financial data from band operations across Atlantic Canada as well as from community consultations and an online survey of businesses, band managers and communities.
The study found that 94 per cent of the overall spending each year is spent largely in rural areas in and around indigenous communities and is “on par” with money spent by several mega projects including the Irving Shipbuilding contract in Halifax and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.
It also highlights demographics as being the key to future growth and investment given that the median age for the indigenous population in the region is 28 as compared to 43 for all other residents.
Federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett said the study is significant because it shows Canadians that money provided to indigenous communities is an “investment rather than just money spent.”
“This is part of moving what Canadians see on the problem side of the equation into the solution side of the equation when you realize this is actually contributing to the economy in a huge way,” said Bennett.
However, the study also points to “systemic barriers” that hinder growth in indigenous communities including the reluctance of residents to leave because of cultural differences that prove challenging in more urban settings.
It says there is also a problem with skills development because of a lack of proficiency in reading and math for potential apprentices and a shortage of role models to emulate. Access to capital is also seen as a problem.
Leroy Denny, chief of Cape Breton’s Eskasoni band, said a lot of work needs to be done to improve economic conditions in communities such as his own.
Denny believes a larger role can still be played by business and governments.
“Invest in our people, invest in our education, invest in economic develop, training, programs,” he said. “That’s what we need. Our people are hungry to get educated and to work.”
The report’s findings will be used to inform government and community economic policy and to help develop business growth.