In an ideal world, Mallory Yawnghwe would be running her business from her home community of Saddle Lake Cree Nation.
Instead, she’s based in Edmonton, 90 minutes or so to the southwest.
“There’s absolutely no way I could do what I’m doing if I were still at home. It just wouldn’t be possible,” said Yawnghwe, a procurement and supply chain specialist who earlier this year started up Indigenous Box, a company that ships seasonal gift boxes filled with goods from Indigenous-owned businesses across the country.
The first few times she went home for a visit after the company launched, she tried checking her email to answer questions from customers. She didn’t have much luck.
“The internet was so slow, I couldn’t even sign on at all. In the middle of town, you can’t even get any cell reception. My sister calls it the black hole,” said Yawnghwe.
Lack of access to high speed internet and training in digital skills are significant barriers for Canada’s rapidly growing numbers of Indigenous youth, according to a new report being released Tuesday by RBC.
The report, entitled “Building Bandwidth: Preparing Indigenous Youth for a Digital Future,” is based on 18 months of research, including interviews and surveys with Indigenous youth from across the country, and data from sources including Statistics Canada.
The report found that nearly two-thirds of the jobs held by Indigenous workers in Canada are at risk of being eliminated or radically changed thanks to technological change. That’s especially challenging for youth, who are expected to account for 45 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous population by 2030, according to John Stackhouse, the report’s co-author.
“Some jobs are being disrupted, and the new jobs replacing them are fewer, and require different skill sets. Advanced technology is changing every sector, and every job,” said Stackhouse in an interview.
Roughly 750,000 Indigenous youth are expected to move through the education system and enter the workforce over the next decade, according to the report.
According to Statistics Canada, about 44 per cent of the Indigenous population in Canada is under 25 years old, compared with 28 per cent of the non-Indigenous population.
The report cited examples as diverse as transport for the mining industry, and nurses in remote communities.
“Mining companies will need fewer truck drivers and more people to remotely operate driverless trucks, as well as to program, maintain and repair them. Nurses in remote communities will have to use digital tools to communicate with and assist doctors hundreds of kilometres away,” the report said.
While it’s the right thing to do morally, making sure Indigenous youth have the digital training they will need to succeed in the job market isn’t some charitable venture, Stackhouse argued.
“Almost every forecast shows there’s going to be a serious labour shortage in Canada. Making sure Indigenous youth have the training and skills they need can be part of the solution,” Stackhouse said.
The Gross Domestic Product generated by Indigenous workers and businesses is roughly $33 billion per year, but that could rise as high as $100 billion if it matched Canada’s overall per capita GDP levels, the report noted.
“Economic reconciliation is a fundamental part of reconciliation,” Stackhouse said.
The federal government has vowed that 98 per cent of Canadians will have access to high-speed internet by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030. Federal, provincial and territorial governments also have training programs and funding geared toward Indigenous youth.
But success will require more than just training and adequate high-speed internet access, said Yawnghwe. It will also require changing attitudes and assumptions by educators and guidance counsellors.
“Guidance councillors will come in and tell Indigenous kids, ‘Hey, you can be a welder.’ That’s the wrong message. They should be saying, ‘You can be anything you want.’ There are so many people with so much entrepreneurial spirit and energy and it’s being held back,” said Yawngwhe.
Besides, she added, the idea of entrepreneurship has been around for a lot longer than most people think.
“Indigenous people have been entrepreneurs and managing supply chains across the continent for hundreds of years. This isn’t anything new at all,” Yawngwhe said.