November 2007 Issue


The Aboriginal Challenge and APEGGA’s Role


Mentoring Coordinator

Matt Scheuring, an APEGGA examinee, delivered shocking statistics about Aboriginal people to our National Mentoring Conference delegates, last month. First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population, said Matt, an Aboriginal working for Tri-Ocean who was raised in Montana and educated at MIT.

Rachelle Lee of Einblau & Associates leads a session called Recharging Your Mentoring Batteries, during APEGGA’s second annual National Mentoring Conference, last month. Ms. Lee encouraged delegates to tailor their mentoring to the individual needs, cultures and backgrounds of their protégés.

Between 1991 and 2016, the population with Aboriginal identity is projected to rise by 52 per cent in Canada, compared with 22 per cent for non-Aboriginals. Over the same period, the Aboriginal population aged 15-64 is expected to grow by 72 per cent, compared with only 23 per cent.

In some Aboriginal communities, more than 60 per cent of the people are under 18. By 2017, in several provinces and territories, Aboriginal students will represent 25 to 50 per cent of elementary enrolment.

The good news is that in one generation, from 1979 to 2001, the number of Aboriginal students pursuing post-secondary education in Canada has grown from under 100 to over 28,400. On the other hand, only seven per cent of the Aboriginal population aged 17-34 are registered in post-secondary, compared with 11 per cent in the general population.

Of the Aboriginals registered in post-secondary studies, more than 60 per cent are in non-university programs.

In 2001, only 4.4 per cent of Aboriginals over 15 had university degrees versus 15.7 per cent of non-Aboriginals. According to the 1991 census, less than half of Aboriginal students were completing high school and there has been no significant change in this rate. Grade 7 or 8 is when most Aboriginal students drop out.

In 1998 the Conference Board of Canada said that 50 per cent of all jobs require a minimum of high school education. The 1999-2000 high school graduation rate for on-reserve students and for all Aboriginals 15 and older was only slightly over 30 per cent.

The 1996 census found that 4.6 per cent of the Alberta population was Aboriginal. Of the 27,000-plus Aboriginals pursuing post-secondary education, the number in science and engineering is negligible — 0.35 per cent of those over 15, versus 2.1 per cent for non-Aboriginals. The estimate of national enrolment of Aboriginal students in accredited engineering programs is perhaps 100 to 150.

In Alberta, the exact number of Aboriginal professionals is unknown but very likely under 100 of our 50,000 members. In Canada, the number is estimated at 300 to 500 of 170,000 engineers. If the Aboriginal presence in engineering was representative, 5,500 Canadian engineers would be Aboriginal.

Many Aboriginal communities lack basic standards. Infant mortality is still almost double the Canadian rate and suicide rates are two to seven times higher than for the rest of Canada, depending on the area.

The severe shortage of Aboriginals in science provides few role models and mentors. In addition, the typical views of science are completely at odds with native spirituality and a holistic worldview.

Aboriginal students do better with hands-on learning than with the dominantly lecture format of the educational system. Lack of culturally relevant education materials continues to be a problem, as is the frequent lack of educational achievement standards.

Extreme poverty, on and off reserves, results in even urban Aboriginal kids lacking adequate food, clothing or supplies. This culture of poverty can be tough to break.

The high dropout rate sets low expectations and education is often limited in remote areas by poor science and technical facilities, a lack of qualified teachers, and a high teacher turnover. Illiteracy, family and societal problems continue to be obstacles, and so do the lack of validation for the pursuit of science and the lack of awareness of opportunities.

Despite a few success stories, there is something seriously wrong with this picture. In a country and a province where Aboriginals are the fastest growing population, few are attaining minimum educational requirements for employment. In a province where engineers and geoscientists are increasingly in demand, Aboriginals are severely under-represented in the professions.

Clearly, something has to be done to inform, encourage and assist this segment of the population to meet their potential and to participate in the professional labour market.

What has APEGGA done about this situation?

Two years ago, APEGGA formed an Aboriginal Affairs Committee with the major goals to

  • develop member awareness of Aboriginal issues

  • encourage interest in science and math among Aboriginal students and adults

  • develop funding sources to assist with committee goals

  • mentor Aboriginal students in K-12 and at both Alberta universities.

Enter the Mentor
About a year and a half ago, APEGGA gave a mandate to our Mentoring Program to develop an Aboriginal mentoring program in kindergarten to Grade 12 and at both major universities. It was decided to begin with a Calgary pilot, since most of the Aboriginal professional members coming forward to be in the resource group were Calgarians.

Even within prosperous Calgary, more Aboriginals under 15 face poverty (37.3 per cent) than do non-Aboriginal youth (15.1 per cent). There’s a higher-than-average percentage of one-parent families, social isolation, and discrimination based on stereotypes.

Census data for 2001 in Calgary reveals that half or 10,600 of the 21,845 Aboriginals are youth under 25. Only 41.1 per cent of Aboriginals 15-24 are in school full time and only 1.9 per cent have a university degree, versus 6.5 per cent of non-Aboriginals in the same age group. Only 9.6 per cent of Aboriginals over 25 have a high school certificate, versus 34 per cent.

Working with a small resource group of Aboriginal professionals, APEGGA has developed mentoring models for the K-12 and both universities. Through Linda Crowshoe of the United Way (a contact of our Outreach Program), the model was piloted in St. Martha School, a Calgary school with a high Aboriginal population.

In June of last year, Matt Scheuring went to talk to the school’s 26 Aboriginal students in kindergarten to Grade 9. He told the kids about who he was and he talked about his profession. A few kids seemed particularly excited about the talk.
This spring he spoke to the group again, this time with Denise Atter, Geol.I.T., who is also Aboriginal. The two spoke to the group of almost 45 Aboriginal children attending the school this year.

They are identifying children with a high interest and high ability in the sciences, who they can mentor on a personal level. In January we hope to move the project to a high school with high Aboriginal enrolment.

There are plans to pilot and implement both models in Edmonton as soon as more Aboriginal professionals can be recruited as mentors.

For clarification, note that APEGGA has an Outreach Program that provides volunteers to talk in schools about sciences and science careers, often with the use of demonstration materials. On the other hand, the APEGGA Mentoring Program seeks to identify and work with individual students who show interest and ability in the sciences.

The pilot that will be implemented at the U of C in January will involve identification (through the Native Services Office with respect for privacy legislation) of Aboriginal students in third- and fourth-year engineering and geoscience. We hope to train members of this group who are interested in mentoring first- and second-year students. We will then draw interested members of both groups to help us with mentoring in the K-12 range of students.

Discussion is underway in Edmonton to plan similar programs at the U of A and local schools with high Aboriginal enrolment.
We invite Aboriginal professionals  interested in mentoring these students to contact us. Non-Aboriginal professionals interested in providing job-shadowing opportunities or field trips to their offices or sites are also encouraged to contact us. And we also welcome development of scholarship programs for Aboriginal students.


Arlene Lack
Mentoring Coordinator