NALL Working Paper #04 - 1999
Informal Learning: Cultural Experiences and Entrepreneurship
Among Aboriginal People
Department of Sociology
University of Saskatchewan
This discussion paper is concerned with interactions among
formal learning, informal learning, and life conditions and opportunities
experienced by Aboriginal people in Canada. The contradictory importance of
education for Aboriginal people is examined with respect to three related
aspects of these relationships. First, we summarize students’ accounts of
their experiences in conventional and alternative school settings in three
Saskatchewan communities, exploring how these relate to the students’ broader
cultural and home environments. Second, we examine the formal and informal
educational experiences of a small group of adults surveyed in an urban Indian
and Métis Friendship Centre. Third, we explore a number of issues that arise
around the emergence of entrepreneurial training and entrepreneurship, areas
posed by many commentators as a possible way of bridging formal and informal
learning and overcoming the longstanding marginalization of Aboriginal people
from labour market and economic participation.
The “Education Gap” for Aboriginal People
Considerable attention has been given in recent years to
what is commonly described as an education gap between Aboriginal and
non-Aboriginal Canadians. According to 1996 census data, about one-third (35
percent) of Canadians aged fifteen and over, compared to more than half (54
percent) of the comparable Aboriginal population, have less than high school
education, while 16 percent of the national adult population, and only 4.5
percent of the Aboriginal population, have a university degree (Statistics
Canada, 1998). Dropout rates among Aboriginal youth are reported to be double
those for the general population, and Aboriginal school leavers are about half
as likely to return to school later (Gilbert et al. 1993: 23).
Many observers associate these restricted levels of school
retention and formal educational attainment with inadequate labour market
integration and relatively low socioeconomic status among people of Aboriginal
ancestry (see especially Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996a, b, c, d;
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, 1997: 87). Educational problems are
also intertwined with poverty, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, discrimination,
and other difficulties that many Aboriginal people encounter in their day to day
lives. These concerns are especially pressing insofar as the Aboriginal
population is younger, and growing faster, than the general Canadian population
(Four Directions Consulting Group, 1997). In Saskatchewan, for instance, over
eleven percent of the province’s total population and about twenty percent of
its school-age population were of Aboriginal ancestry in 1996. It is projected
that Aboriginal youth will constitute nearly one-third of the province’s
school-age population in ten years, and thus substantial proportions of future
labour market entrants will be of Aboriginal ancestry early in the next century
(Four Directions Consulting Group, 1997; Saskatchewan Education, 1991: 5).
Education plays a central role in fostering the attainment
by Aboriginal people of diverse objectives for self-determination and equitable
participation in Canadian society. Educational issues have broader significance,
as well, in the context of growing policy attentiveness to questions about how
an aging but diverse society can benefit from the incorporation of historically
marginalized groups into meaningful social and economic positions. Consequently,
the Aboriginal education gap has been the focus of a diverse and increasing
range of policy and program initiatives by numerous public and private sector
bodies, especially over the past three decades (National Indian
Brotherhood/Assembly of First Nations, 1988; Royal Commission on Aboriginal
Peoples, 1996b, 1996c)
Some optimism arises from the increasing numbers of
Aboriginal learners who are enrolling in programs and attaining credentials in
conventional and First Nations-administered educational institutions at various
levels. Elementary and secondary schools in many jurisdictions have begun to
incorporate Aboriginal teachers, cultural programming, and services that are
oriented to the needs of Aboriginal learners. Higher than average numbers of
Aboriginal adults, especially women, in age groups above usual post-secondary
entrance levels, are returning to schools and universities to upgrade their
credentials. Nonetheless, as Canadians’ overall rates of participation and
attainment levels in formal education are reaching unprecedented heights,
comparable educational achievements among Aboriginal people remain well below
national averages (Kirkness and Bowman, 1992; Sub-Committee on Aboriginal
Education, 1992; Working Margins Consulting Group, 1992).
As research and policy attention has come to focus on the
educational deficits among Aboriginal people with respect to formal schooling,
there has been limited consideration of the importance and potential of informal
educational activities. Informal learning, constituting deliberate learning
situations that exist outside of formally credentialed education, is a
widespread but often “hidden” form of education that plays a critical role
in expanding people’s knowledge and capabilities in several spheres of
contemporary social life (Garrick, 1996: 22-23; (Livingstone, 1997: 10;
Livingstone, 1998). Many Aboriginal people, regardless of their formal education
levels, may possess applied skills or be involved, for instance, in cultural
programs or self-help ventures that are not acknowledged in formal assessments
of their credentials. Similarly, socially-useful knowledge and skills learned
through traditional means may be forgotten, undermined or marginalized in the
course of individual or community efforts to meet the demands of formal
schooling or training programs. It is important, then, to take into account the
nature and extent of informal learning among Aboriginal people in order to
enhance our overall understanding of education and promote effective strategies
to realize the capacities of Aboriginal people.
Formal and Informal Learning in Aboriginal Societies
Most, if not all, cultures engage in both formal and
informal forms of learning. In Canada, with the ascendance of mass schooling and
official credentialing systems since the nineteenth century, educational
relations have been characterized by the efforts of diverse groups to codify
knowledge and regulate the conditions by which it can be validated, transmitted
and assessed (Wotherspoon, 1998: 91; 47ff.). One consequence (at least until the
recent advancement by various groups of challenges to state-centered education
systems, primarily under the guise of lifelong learning) has been a powerful
tendency to equate education with formal learning and to ignore or discount the
educational value of informal learning activities.
The history of Aboriginal education in Canada
reveals how struggles over the ability to define and deliver legitimate forms of
education are critical to the shaping of a society and its people. In these
regards, it is important to recognize how both formal and informal learning are
educational in a dual sense. Education is important in productive or technical
terms insofar as it is directed to the acquisition of technical knowledge,
skills, competencies, and, in formal schooling, credentials recognized for
labour market and institutional participation. Education also has a moral or
subjective purpose, concerned to develop particular kinds of human beings with
personal attributes, identities, characters, and behaviours deemed socially
acceptable in particular cultural frameworks (Apple, 1986: 72; Wotherspoon,
1998: 119-120). Various groups or communities therefore look to education as an
important tool with which forms of individuals and activities that serve their
long-term interests are given shape.
Sensitivity to the productive and subjective
dimensions of education, as they are formally and informally arranged, is
important to an understanding of education among Aboriginal people.
Traditionally, First Nations societies practiced both formal and informal
learning, although the two learning forms were more organically linked than they
would become in advanced industrial societies. Learning was integrated into
everyday activity as part of a holistic orientation to the natural, social and
spiritual worlds. Henderson (1995: 247) describes how education was structured
as through regular community interactions:
Traditionally our elders and parents taught children our way of managing and
prospering in harmony with the environment. Our communities were our
classrooms, our families and our sacred order provided the methodology.
Customary teaching and learning existed beyond the reach of the European
schools imposed by either the provinces or federal government. The linguistic
world-view and values were passed from generation to generation; they continue
to shape Indian educational aspirations.
Elders and family members, with variations among indigenous societies, played
the most central roles in the educational process (McKay and McKay, 1987: 66).
Battiste (1986: 25) and Ermine (1995: 104-105) argue that, contrary to the myth
that literacy was introduced only after European contact, Aboriginal societies
had distinct forms of literacy that emerged through the interaction of tribal
epistemologies, texts, and oral histories. Elders’ stories, cultural
ceremonies, and rituals were critical to the preservation of histories and the
transmission of systems of rights, values and morality between generations
(Medicine, 1987: 142-143; Hampton, 1995: 8; Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council,
1997: 91-92). The most highly structured learning situations were reserved for
special positions such as healers, spiritual guides, and political leaders or
chiefs, as well as apprenticeships for elder (Couture, 1996; Miller, 1996:
15ff.; Kirkness and Bowman, 1992: 5-7). However, all learners were expected to
encounter both formal and informal educational situations.
By contrast, European-based formal education
appeared in the form of schooling as an imposition, utilized as a way to replace
indigenous traditions with externally-developed forms of knowledge, moral
discipline, and cultural attributes (Satzewich and Wotherspoon, 1993). Auger
(1997: 350) contrasts these kinds of formal schooling with the Cree philosophy
in which humans are understood as spirit as well as body and mind:
The structure of Canadian schooling tells us that spirit is separate from
teaching and learning. Even knowledge is considered separate, something out
there to be poured into the minds of the children by the all-knowing classroom
Formal education from before confederation into at least the early 1970s was
guided by an official objective to make Indians and other Aboriginal people into
persons who could assimilate into the mainstream. In the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, the residential school system signified efforts to
prepare Indian youth to assimilate through segregation. Subsequent integration
of Indian children into provincial school systems, through off-reserve migration
and eventual closing of residential schools, was marked by high rates of visible
failure with a majority of First Nations youth leaving school well before high
Initially, much of the blame for this failure was
placed on the Aboriginal people and their culture. By the mid-1970s, educators
and educational analysts began to emphasize a “cultural discontinuity
thesis” that suggested schools were at least partly to blame for their failure
to acknowledge and incorporate the different cultural standards and expectations
that Aboriginal youth brought with them into Eurocentric school systems. More
recent analysis, sensitive to the prospects of self-determination and First
Nations controlled schooling, has suggested that the conventional education
system remains ill-equipped to overcome high rates of Aboriginal failure and
dropout due to the lack of Aboriginal content, cultural curricula, and
personnel. Substantial attention, therefore, has turned to the importance of
incorporating Aboriginal culture and personnel into the school system (see,
e.g., Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996a, c; Ryan, 1996).
Institutional responses to the “education gap,”
overall, then, have been governed by emphasis on individual adaptations to
mainstream schooling or possible responses by school systems to Aboriginal
clientele in a manner that continues to privilege existing education systems and
structures. These views are underlined by assumptions about salient cultural
factors that differentiate Aboriginal students from the general population. Just
as formal and informal learning are seen to exist as separate realms, so too are
school and culture. Consequently, there is a danger that Aboriginal cultural
programming or elders’ participation, when they do appear in schools, may tend
simply to be dropped into the curriculum as “add-ons” or novel features with
little integration between schooling and cultures (viewed traditionally as well
as living entities).
However, Aboriginal culture, like education, is dynamic
and changing. Battiste (1998) emphasizes that indigenous knowledge cannot be
understood without reference to a total way of life or cultural framework in
which it is produced. Analysis offered by indigenous writers emphasizes
repeatedly the need for education systems to integrate traditional Aboriginal
knowledge with more conventional understandings of contemporary cultures
(Alfred, 1999: 133; Couture, 1996: 43). Haig-Brown, Hodgson-Smith, Regnier, and
Archibald (1997), for example, highlight how positive outcomes can be achieved
in alternative school settings that adopt holistic orientations to learning and
Our thinking about effective educational practices, in
other words, must be open to sensitivity to educational practices that reach
beyond the kinds of knowledge and structured activities that are incorporated
into the curriculum. Learning and life directions take shape through complex
interactions among diverse social and educational sites that include personal
and community relations outside of, as well as within, formal schooling.
Understandings of educational success and failure for any social group, then,
must take into consideration how schooling environments variously may ignore or
encompass elements of these wider cultural practices. These intersections among
culture, formal education and informal education are explored, in the discussion
that follows, with respect to the perspectives of Aboriginal youth in schools,
Aboriginal adults in the community, and the relationship between Aboriginal
culture and entrepreneurial development possibilities.
The Perspectives of Aboriginal Youth in Saskatchewan Schools
The first part of our research involved students who
identified themselves as Aboriginal and attended schools in three communities in
central Saskatchewan in 1998. Interviews were conducted with 65 elementary
school students (in grades three and six) and 25 high school students (in grades
nine and twelve), and talking circles with 32 students in an alternative high
school, under the guidance of two Aboriginal research assistants. In each
setting, students were asked to comment on their educational experiences and
aspirations, their home and community experiences, and issues related to
Aboriginal cultures (see Schissel and Wotherspoon, 1998, for further details).
The research findings reveal that students placed a high
value on conventional indicators of educational success. They offered mostly
positive assessments of their schools, and their high educational aspirations
reveal that they valued formal schooling on a long-term basis. Only about
fifteen percent of the high school students, and fewer than ten percent of the
elementary students, indicated that they had no plans to pursue education beyond
high school; conversely, nearly seventy percent of those in high school, and
sixty percent of those in elementary school, wished to attend university.
Parallel with their educational aspirations, students expressed a strong desire
to pursue careers in professions or community service occupations, especially
law, health care, teaching, and business, all of which typically require
extended training or advanced credentials. With respect to their educational
experiences, students offered a wide range of both positive and negative
assessments, similar to those commonly related by non-Aboriginal students.
Specific classes or subjects, teachers, students, and situational factors
figured prominently in students’ accounts of what they liked and what they
disliked or found difficult in school.
The students also placed a high value on traditional
cultural elements. Particularly at the high school level, they expressed a
strong desire to explore their roots through knowledge and activities relevant
to indigenous cultures, languages, and spirituality. Although most students
indicated that they had some contact with Aboriginal teachers in their schools,
and most had at least some cultural activities in their schools, they felt that
schools should be doing more to incorporate Aboriginal content and personnel.
Other than those in the alternative high school, which was devoted to the
integration of Aboriginal teachers and cultural activities into its educational
program, most students were concerned that there were few Aboriginal teachers,
elders, or programs, with Aboriginal content mostly consigned to restricted
periods, subject areas or cultural days. They sought much more integration of
these factors into schools, desiring considerably more opportunities than they
currently had to engage elder participation, spirituality, and stronger
knowledge of their cultural heritage.
Some students felt that schools needed to offer cultural
teachings in order to restore the identity and sense of heritage lost through
previous generations. One grade 12 student in an inner-city school commented on
the need for schools to integrate cultural values and Aboriginal culture in the
primary grades, at the level at which identities are formed, since by high
school, “basically you see all these white students around, you see the
mainstream parts without really having an identity and if it’s not at home,
here do you get it?” Another student, in the same school, agreed, commenting
that schools should provide traditional cultural teaching,
because we’ve lost so much over the years; it’s slowly coming back but I
think there needs to be some things like in schools all the time for those
types of things because we all live in the city and we don’t get to go
hunting and stuff like tan a hide and we need things like that else we are
going to lose them. I think it would also give kids something more to do,
because pretty much the only option you have in a city is go drinking, go to a
bar, do some crime, there’s a lot of kid aren’t into sports, like me I’m
in it for my child but not for myself, I like to do things with my hands more,
like produce things, crafts.
Several students pointed to differences in what schools and
elders or parents taught in the areas of languages, ceremonies, and traditional
knowledge. Sometimes, these could be complementary. One grade 12 student
observed that, in school,
they teach you history and about the way things were, they give you the
why’s and the logic on how to keep up with the world, whereas elders and
certain people I respect give me the wisdom I need to go on.
But other students saw discontinuity or even inconsistency in the gaps between
school and community-based knowledge:
There is quite a contrast [between school and what my people tell me], like
the Crazyhorse; the old people know, like my grandpa used to talk about them a
lot, and then when you learn about them in school, there’s just – it’s
kind of different – and I was saying, okay, somebody is lying to me”
(Grade 12 student).
…the way I was being taught in school about sweats [sweat lodge
ceremonies] was kind of different, different procedures [from what my
grandparents have taught] (Grade 9 student).
Most students revealed that they had some contact with elements of their
indigenous heritage, especially languages, at home or in the community. About
fifteen percent of high school students, and forty percent of elementary school
students, indicated that they spoke an Aboriginal language, and an additional
forty percent of high school students and thirty percent of elementary students
said that they could speak “a little bit” of Aboriginal language. Moreover,
nearly all the students said that someone in their homes spoke an Aboriginal
language. However, the students felt strongly that there was insufficient
language instruction in their schools, and a majority expressed a desire to be
given some formal recognition of indigenous languages and, to a lesser extent,
other traditional cultural activities and traditions that they engaged in
outside of school. Even without credit, many students sought involvement in such
activities on a voluntary basis, expressing a need to have formal contact with
past, to help regain a sense of identity and connection with elders, and simply
to keep them busy. However, a small number of students felt that cultural
activities, in or out of school, should remain voluntary, or were not wanted,
stating, “I’m not really into that.”
Students, regardless of their views on traditional
heritage, were keenly aware of the impact of contemporary cultural
manifestations on their lives and identities. Virtually all of the students
expressed high degrees of sensitivity to pressing family and community concerns,
especially with respect to racism, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty,
housing conditions, the desire for a safe environment, and, often among high
school students, parenting. Many students revealed their own direct encounters
with such experiences:
there was a time in my life when I was kind of ashamed to be Aboriginal
because of the experience, the racism (Grade 12 student);
[Problems for Aboriginal people for me are] when they are drunk and
they go to stores and they scare us. They scare me. When someone tries to
break into our house (Grade 3 student);
I know this girl, she was 11 years old and pregnant, and one of my
friends was 13 years old and got pregnant, and they are still babies. I think
about it now, I had my first kid at 15 and that was too young; that’s why my
parents have him, I was too screwed up to be raising a child. I think they
should make birth control free. You should be able to go to your school nurse
and get birth control (Grade 12 student).
However, even students who indicated that they had not experienced racism and
other serious social concerns themselves commented frequently on the impact of
these phenomena on family members, people they knew, or more generally in their
communities. In these regards, it is important to recognize that Aboriginal
students live in a variety of circumstances, and most would likely indicate they
had what might generally be considered relatively “problem-free” lives by
conventional standards. At the same time, many of them struggle with fundamental
personal, social and situational problems that school authorities and other
public officials must take into account in order to ensure that students have
access to meaningful educational experiences.
Contained within students’ accounts of their schooling
and social lives is a high degree of awareness of their socio-cultural
circumstances expressed in the form of both traditional heritage and
contemporary conditions. They value formal education and maintain high
aspirations for success by conventional standards, despite indications that
continuing barriers to their social and educational advancement are likely to
mean that many of them will not achieve their objectives. They view their
education positively, but feel that schools are falling short in many areas.
They express a dual need for their identities and knowledge to have some
traditional grounding at the same time that official acknowledgment must be
given to contemporary community realities that enter into the lives of
Aboriginal people. It is instructive that, in all of these regards, students who
were most confident and positive were those in the alternative school settings
in which formal and informal learning, and traditional and contemporary
cultures, were most highly integrated. Students’ lives, in these settings,
were validated and nurtured through a meaningful amalgamation of past, present
and future orientations.
Accounts of Formal and Informal Learning by Inner-city Aboriginal Adults
A second, related component of the research concerns
questions related to how adults, many of whom have had little conventional
educational success, reflect on their educational experiences and learning needs
and aspirations. To address these issues in a preliminary way, a small body of
data was collected through interviews (using the New Approaches to Lifelong
Learning National Survey questionnaire as a guide) with twelve Aboriginal adults
in mid-1998. The respondents were individuals who volunteered to participate
after they were approached at the Saskatoon Indian and Métis Friendship Centre,
an inner-city drop-in centre that is open to all Aboriginal people to provide
space, services and events as determined by community members.
In common with large segments of the Aboriginal
population, the respondents had relatively low levels of formal education (only
two had completed high school and two more had high school equivalency), and
nearly all had parents who had little or no formal schooling. Nine of them were
unemployed or out of the labour force, and three worked on a part-time basis.
About half of them participated at the time of the interview in adult education
or job training programs, and one was in a post-secondary program.
Surprisingly, given their limited educational attainments,
about half reported positive experiences with their own schooling, but
identified several barriers to their learning, including racism, alcohol and
drug dependency, trouble with the law, pregnancy, and lack of support from
parents or peers to continue their schooling. The respondents’ participation
in informal learning activities varied broadly, ranging between two and
thirty-nine hours per week. Involvement in informal learning was distributed
relatively evenly across several areas, including personal and life skills
development, job and employment-related skills, personal interests, and cultural
activities. They expressed a strong desire to seek and maintain connections with
their cultural traditions, with nearly all of them specifying a wish for
skill-development in areas like nature appreciation, tanning, dehydrating food,
making moss bags, and beadwork. Several wished to have credit courses available
to them in language, crafts, spirituality, or other cultural traditions. While
many individuals expressed a preference to develop skills and talents that would
allow them to participate in conventional labour markets, others cited needs
that were much more fundamental, including expressed desires to gain language,
communications, healing, and basic life skills through informal learning
The adults, much more than the elementary and high school
students, conveyed a strong interest in developing linkages and identities with
indigenous heritage, but they felt that such linkages should happen in a
self-directed way. Respondents pointed to the need to take charge of their own
lives and futures. One male respondent, a high school dropout who had just begun
a basic literacy program, saw that formal education was necessary “[for me] to
get my feet back on the ground…put my mind to work instead of losing my
mind.” A Cree woman, who had completed high school equivalency and was
parenting full-time, observed, though, that, “Learning should not be limited
to the classroom. [There is a need to] encourage more learning on [their] own.
Eliminate teachers and encourage people to learn on own.” There was a
deeply-expressed sentiment that formal and informal educational experiences
should be more fully integrated in people’s lives. Several respondents
commented on the important role that parents, elders, and peers played in
influencing their educational and life decisions. They believed that personal
stability and educational success depended upon a strong base of family and
The accounts of adult Aboriginal respondents reflect a
powerful combination of early failure and frustration with motivation and hope
for the future. The legacy of social and historical circumstances, represented
partly by experiences in formal schooling, comes through in the respondents’
histories of low educational attainment, unemployment, and various personal and
emotional problems. At the same time, the respondents retained faith in formal
education as a means by which individuals can achieve success in conventional
terms. They augmented their orientations to schooling with a desire for
individual and community resources that would promote self-directed learning and
The data as a whole reveal that there are considerable
variations in the levels, needs and experiences associated with both formal and
informal learning among Aboriginal people. The respondents’ experiences also
suggest that, while many of them identified a strong need to develop their own
basic skills and capacities, they also constitute an important community
resource insofar as their life stories and capabilities have much to offer
others. In these regards, much stronger integration is required between formal
schooling and Aboriginal people’s informal learning and cultural realities.
Conventional institutions and programs that ignore these varied needs and
resources are likely to restrain the achievement of educational and community
success by large segments of the Aboriginal population.
Prospects for Entrepreneurship Among Canada’s Aboriginal People
The third element of this discussion examines issues
related to entrepreneurship, which has received considerable recent attention as
a possible integrative mechanism through which Aboriginal people may achieve the
social and economic success that has eluded them in conventional transition
processes between school and work. Aboriginal people, overall, have made rapid
inroads into the world of business ownership. According to Industry Canada
(1998b: 1), there are now over 20,000 North American Indians, Métis and Inuit
in Canada who have their own businesses, half of which are located on reserves.
In the context of these developments, it is important to explore the prospects
that entrepreneurial training and development can offer as a potential means to
bridge formal and informal learning and as an effective strategy to advance
Aboriginal people’s labour market and economic participation.
An overview of how Aboriginal people’s participation in
entrepreneurship has changed over the past two decades provides a context within
which to understand these issues. Between 1981 and 1996, the number of
Aboriginal people who were self-employed grew more than two and a half times
faster than the national increase in self-employment, with an increase of 170
percent for Aboriginal people compared to a 65 percent increase for the general
population. Although Aboriginal business growth has been rapid, only 3.9 percent
of Aboriginal people owned businesses in 1996, well below the national average
of 7.9 percent. Gender and age difference are important factors in Aboriginal
business ownership. In 1996, 2.7 of Aboriginal women, compared to 5.0 percent of
women in the national population, were business owners, while among men, 5.2
percent of Aboriginal people compared to 11.1 percent of the national population
owned businesses. However, Aboriginal youth (aged fifteen to twenty-four) were
two and a half times more likely to carry out entrepreneurship than Canadian
youth in general, with 1.2 percent of Aboriginal youth owning businesses
compared to only 0.5 percent of the national youth population (Industry Canada,
1998b: 12). Entrepreneurs under thirty years of age made up almost nineteen
percent of all self-employed Aboriginal people, nearly double the comparable
figure of ten percent for Canadians in general.
Over sixty percent of Aboriginal businesses can be found
in the three main areas of primary industry (natural resources), recreation and
personal services (such as amusement, recreation, personal, and household
services), and transportation and construction (Industry Canada, 1998b: 19).
Substantial numbers of Aboriginal entrepreneurs also operate businesses in
retail and wholesale trade, health and social services, business services,
hotels and restaurants, manufacturing, insurance and real estate, education
services and communications. In the business services, finance, insurance and
real estate industries – sectors that Industry Canada (1998b: 20, 35)
identifies as focal points for growth – Aboriginal ownership remains
noticeably under-represented, although tourism is cited as one of “the
promising industries” for Aboriginal people.
Since 1981, the areas of Aboriginal business that have
seen the most increase have been health and social services, with an increase of
16.4 percent, and recreation/ personal services, with an increase of 11.3
percent. The “traditional” pursuits of fishing, trapping, and farming, and
contracting trades like excavating and plumbing, also continue to remain
prevalent among Aboriginal entrepreneurs. However, according to Industry Canada
(1998b: 20), these sectors are not emerging as strategic growth areas. If this
is true, then Aboriginal businesses are not in the best position to succeed over
the long term.
Geography is also important to the distribution of
Aboriginal businesses. About two out of every three Aboriginal-owned firms exist
west of Ontario, and more than half are located in urban areas. One province,
Saskatchewan, is unique in that about 55 percent of the province’s
Aboriginal-owned businesses are in rural areas. This may be due to the fact that
entrepreneurship training and development is part of a growing initiative to
encourage rural community development. In 1996, Saskatchewan was home to 1,835
self-employed Aboriginal people – classified as 62 percent male, 32 percent
female, and six percent youth – and the numbers are increasing (Industry
Canada, 1998b: 48).
Across Canada, female entrepreneurs are showing the most
growth (an increase of 406 percent from 1981 to 1996). In 1996, there were 7,265
self-employed Aboriginal women in Canada. Despite many barriers to Aboriginal
female entrepreneurship (access to resources being a major one), they are still
managing to find the means to start their own businesses (Whiteduck and
Blanchard, 1995; Chiste, 1996). These trends suggest that Aboriginal women may
have potentially new avenues for success outside of conventional labour market
entry processes that have often failed them in the past.
As noted earlier, young people constitute an especially
important group within the Aboriginal population. Over half of First Nations
people in Canada are below the age of twenty-five. The employment rate for
on-reserve youth is only seventeen percent, compared to 57 percent for the
general Canadian population. According to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian
Nations (1997: 3), this gap, at least in Saskatchewan, is forecast to increase.
In response, federal and provincial government agencies and the Federation have
chosen to focus upon entrepreneurship training and small business development as
a key strategy to reduce the chronic youth unemployment rate and the rate of
young adult out-migration from their communities, thereby stimulating local
economic development (Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, 1997;
Ministerial Task Force on Youth Employment Issues, 1996). Under the Canadian
Jobs and Growth Agenda, the federal government highlights the importance of
small business as “the primary job creators in Canada,” and commits itself
work in partnership with industry, academic institutions, special interest
groups and other levels of government…developing an active, export-capable
business community; establishing a modem technological infrastructure, and
ensuring that the country's youth develop the skills and experience to succeed
in tomorrow’s job market. As the primary job creators in Canada, small
businesses are an integral part of the government’s plan (Ministerial Task
Force on Youth Employment Issues, 1996: 1).
It appears that young Aboriginal people may have been listening, as their
participation in business ownership increased by 149 percent from 1981 to 1996.
In 1996, there were 1,655 self-employed Aboriginal youths in Canada (Industry
Canada, 1998b: 6). Given the recent growth and emphasis on entrepreneurial
training and development, what are the prospects to remedy concerns raised
previously in this paper with respect to Aboriginal people’s labour market and
economic participation and the relations between formal and informal learning?
Entrepreneurship and the Advancement of Aboriginal People’s Labour
Market and Economic Participation
The federal government places considerable emphasis on
Aboriginal people’s participation in entrepreneurship as a useful means to
overcome their marginalization from the labour market. Industry Canada (1998b:
1) states that Aboriginal people, by participating in small business, “are
leading their own way to a brighter economic future.” However, if
entrepreneurs are deemed to be the primary job creators in Canada, as the
federal government has maintained, it is important to consider how Aboriginal
businesses have fared in this regard. In 1996, thirty-eight percent of
Aboriginal businesses had between one and four full-time, permanent employees,
seven percent had between five and nineteen full-time employees, and only one
percent had twenty or more full-time employees, while 54% had no full-time
employees (Industry Canada, 1998b: 15) This is, perhaps, not surprising when one
considers the advice that small business experts like Jack James (1992) provide
to those interested in doing entrepreneurship. He advises that, in order to keep
costs down, owners should hire as few employees as possible. Clearly, until
small businesses are firmly established, job creation (especially full-time)
seems difficult if not impossible.
With respect to the benefits that entrepreneurship had
brought to the individual owners, compared to the national average, fewer
Aboriginal businesses were profitable, and they tended to bring in less net
profit. According to Industry Canada (1998b: 18), 62 percent of firms owned by
Aboriginal people, compared to 71 percent of all Canadian businesses, were
profitable (these businesses included firms with gross revenues of anywhere
between $25,000 and $5 million). Earnings of self-employed Aboriginal people
were also lower than average; whereas self-employed Canadians earned an average
of $29,897 in 1996, self-employed Aboriginal people earned an average of only
$18,947 (Industry Canada, 1998b: 18).
Critics of entrepreneurship assert that, while
self-employment is widely touted as desirable, it is, to a large extent, an
unchecked myth that serves the corporate passion for downsizing and outsourcing.
Joseph F. Coates (1996), for example, argues that self-employment is extremely
risky. Most individuals simply do not have the entrepreneurial characteristics
needed to start a business. Such skills would include the drive and incentive to
continually grow, expand and to become dominant in a particular field of
business. Most self-employed people, Coates (1996: 163) argues, are not even
small business people in the sense of the dry cleaner or the restauranteur, but
are self-employed largely as a way of creating jobs for themselves; “The
economic reality is that, in a period of recession, depression, or labour
surplus, self-employment becomes merely one step short of the bread line.”
Despite all of this, Industry Canada (1998a; 1998b: 13)
asserts that the future prosperity of Aboriginal people requires the creation of
viable business opportunities, which will be essential to improve the employment
prospects for the large number of young people who will soon be entering the job
market. The federal government makes several suggestions on how to improve the
prospects for success. A recent government survey of over 1000 Aboriginal
business owners identified five ‘top priorities’ that were essential factors
to improve success among businesses: management skills (89 percent); improved
productivity (88 percent); innovation (76 percent); financing (74 percent);
employee training (67 percent); and expansion of markets (67 percent) (see
Industry Canada, 1998b: 24).
Advocates of entrepreneurial development also cite the
importance of increased levels of educational attainment (particularly in areas
associated with the “new knowledge economy,” such as engineering, science,
and mathematics) to Aboriginal people’s entrepreneurial and economic success
(Industry Canada, 1998b: 41). In these respects, the relatively low educational
attainments and uncertain prospects for improved educational achievement among
Aboriginal people become critical. Aboriginal people are more highly
under-represented in the so-called strategic knowledge fields than in other
areas. Consideration must be given to the broader relevance of formal and
informal learning to the prospects of success for the increasing numbers of
Aboriginal people (particularly women and youths) who have invested time, energy
and resources to start their own businesses. On the one hand, as revealed in the
accounts by adults interviewed in the Friendship Centre, reported earlier, many
individuals have capabilities and support networks that may allow them to
develop successful initiatives outside of conventional labour market streams. On
the other hand, an absence of fundamental training, resources, and community
support may leave those who do establish a business highly vulnerable under
The fact that many Aboriginal people live in rural and
remote communities is another factor that can inhibit their entrepreneurial
efforts. Their geographic distance from markets and services may pose special
problems. Promoters of knowledge-based economic and social development point
suggest that Aboriginal business owners in diverse locales will be able to
develop support linkages through the internet and other information-based
technologies that can serve as tools to overcome distance barriers (Industry
Canada, 1998a: 40). As in many other areas, though, successful development and
utilization of technological applications presuppose the availability of
personnel, training, infrastructures, basic skills, and other resources that
vary widely across regions and segments of the population (see Moll, 1997).
The Potential for Aboriginal Entrepreneurship to Bridge Formal and
The relevance of conventional approaches to Aboriginal
entrepreneurial development is challenged by debates over the relationship
between traditional approaches to Aboriginal economies and contemporary economic
systems. Industry Canada (1998b: 46) asserts that, “the keys to success for
Aboriginal entrepreneurs will be largely the same as for small businesses
in Canada. Successful firms will be those that innovate, search out broader
markets, and generally adopt more forward-looking business practices.” In
other words, Aboriginal businesses are expected to follow the same business
practices and, consequently, possess the same goals as other small businesses in
Canada, in order to succeed. By contrast, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal
Peoples (1996b) observes that Aboriginal cultures have very different views
about economics. These views are based on a belief that the needs of the
collective take precedence, particularly with regard to the distribution of
The fundamental difference in emphasis between the Aboriginal view of
economics and the beliefs of liberal capitalism relates less to the means by
which wealth is created than to the appropriate distribution of resources once
these have been acquired. Aboriginal cultures share a deeply embedded belief
that the welfare of the collective is a higher priority than the acquisition
of wealth by the individual (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996b:
Ron Jamieson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations community and a
vice-president of the Bank of Montreal, observes a common misperception in both
the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities that Aboriginal people lack the
skills and temperament to be effective entrepreneurs. He argues, to the
contrary, that the personal skills and resources they bring to their business
are the same ones that allowed his ancestors to survive in a traditional
Aboriginal community (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996b: 885).
Jamieson goes on to identify four qualities that he believes are essential for
modern business. These qualities, he states, have long been practised by
Aboriginal people: risk taking, discipline, clarity of vision, and meeting the
needs of the community or the customer. First, entrepreneurship without risk
taking does not exist. Traditional economies had high degrees of risk, and true
risk means risking one’s own resources. Second, discipline means paying
attention to the details to ensure that a business survives and grows.
Traditional economies required personal discipline, because survival and the
success of the hunt required attentiveness to detail and the ability to make
quick decisions under pressure. Third, vision and self-confidence are especially
crucial to survive the first five years of business. Traditional entrepreneurs
required a clear sense of results in order to feed, clothe and care for their
families. Finally, entrepreneurship involves the essential element of meeting,
and exceeding, the customers’ expectations. This is very important in the
Aboriginal community, where people often see themselves as being taken advantage
of by untrustworthy entrepreneurs. The traditional entrepreneur derived feelings
of self-esteem through the ability to provide the essentials for family, clan
and community members (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996b: 885).
A discussion paper published by the Ministry of Small
Business, Tourism and Culture and Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs of British
Columbia in 1994, also suggests that culture plays an important part in
developing Aboriginal economies. Many Aboriginal people emphasize that personal,
social, community, and cultural healing constitute major parts of economic
development. They also stress that long term economic development must reflect
cultural values, attitudes and activities that vary between communities. This
means that economic development needs to adapt to local economic and cultural
needs. The use of culture as a guiding principle can provide standards for
measuring the “goodness of fit” between economic goals and opportunities. In
this way, non-economic goals, such as consensus-based decision-making, or the
attachment to land, can influence economic goals (British Columbia, 1994: 5).
The indications so far suggest that both conventional
channels to educational and labour market development and entrepreneurship have
expanded, demonstrating some promise for the future success of Canada’s
Aboriginal people. However, faith in entrepreneurship as a central solution to
past economic difficulties remains highly suspect, insofar as Aboriginal-owned
businesses tend not to perform as well as the national average of Canadian-owned
businesses, which themselves face considerable risk. It has also been shown
that, to date, the federal government’s efforts to study the factors which may
contribute to, or inhibit, Aboriginal business success have failed to address
the positive contribution that Aboriginal culture and traditional learning
experiences may make toward such success. The extent to which Aboriginal
entrepreneurship training and development can be viewed as a means of advancing
both their labour market participation and economic position, through the
integration of formal and informal learning, is not yet known and requires
However, as was reported through interviews with
Aboriginal youth and adults in and out of formal education systems, many
Aboriginal people believe that any form of educational training – including
entrepreneurship training – must be made more relevant by incorporating both
Aboriginal traditions and contemporary life conditions. An integrated approach
is valued for its ability to facilitate the production of educated individuals
and entrepreneurs who can live, work, and develop businesses in settings that
are both relevant to the Aboriginal community and economically viable.
Integrated educational programs are also likely to foster the improvement of
what are often considered poor relations between Aboriginals and the general
population, their organizations, institutions, and communities (British
Columbia, 1994; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996a).
Our discussion has highlighted several elements involved
in the relationships among formal and informal learning in the experiences of
Canada’s Aboriginal people. Gaps remain in the attainment of educational
success by Aboriginal people, relative to the general population, viewed in
terms of conventional educational indicators. While this has often led to
considerable frustration and mistrust of formal schools, the Aboriginal youth
and adults involved in our study place a high degree of value in formal
schooling, mainstream economic activities, and entrepreneurial opportunities as
mechanisms for individual and community advancement. However, we have also
observed that strategies for educational and economic development have tended to
ignore cultural elements and sensitivity to the needs of Aboriginal people, to
define them in highly constrained ways, or to employ them in a restricted or
partial manner. While Aboriginal people themselves have mixed views about the
extent to which their cultural heritage should be integrated into mainstream
activities, they express clear desires for affirmation of their identity and for
programs and services that will enable them to have a fundamental grounding to
participate on a full and equitable basis in Canadian society. In these regards,
Aboriginal people possess several capacities, in the form of skills, knowledge,
and experience, that are given little place or legitimacy in conventional
educational and economic activities. Their educational experiences and desires
suggest, more generally, that all Canadians could benefit from closer
integration among community realities, formal learning, and informal learning
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