The dominant narrative of the province of Saskatchewan for the past decade has been one of prosperity, with a lot of hype about the “Saskaboom” accompanying global demand for our natural resources, especially in the agricultural, energy, and mining industries.
The other half of that story, which has not gotten as much attention outside of the province but certainly has within it, is the province’s changing demographics. First Nations are the fastest growing portion of the population and have been for some time. The on-reserve population has effectively doubled since 1986, and grew by 15.7% between 2006 and 2011. The overall, ‘booming’ provincial population by comparison grew by only 6.7%. This means that in 30 years’ time, Aboriginal people will compose about a third of the workforce.
The fact is, Saskatchewan will surely enter a long decline if its leaders do nothing about the terrible gaps that now exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in health outcomes, educational attainment and employment rates.
What does it mean to have a single economy and society in Saskatchewan? In the past few years, every educational institution in the province has been refining ways to recruit and attract Aboriginal students, record numbers of First Nations students are enrolling – and graduating! The largest corporations and firms in the province have proactive Aboriginal human resource development strategies. Urban reserves with traditional business structures are proliferating. Resource extraction companies are actively seeking First Nations and Aboriginal partners. One can only conclude one thing: First Nations economic development in the province has gone mainstream.
While prospects have improved, many communities remain poorly positioned to take advantage of the economic opportunities around them. This is particularly true for on reserve and rural First Nation people.
The mandate of the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network (SFNEDN) is to support all First Nations communities and individuals to grow and direct their economic livelihood and future. There is no magic bullet, no panacea that will help this to happen overnight. Capacity building, professional development, networking, good governance and strategic planning may sound like buzz words, but they are tried and true ways to affect community development. The Network is one place to link into to move further down a path of prosperity and self-sufficiency.
Written by Heather Exner-Pirot, SFNEDN Board Member