Current Problems

Business and Reconciliation (92)

Opinion: How to stop the Indigenous brain drain

February 3, 2023
Expanding access to high-speed internet at Indigenous communities is one of the most significant ways to counter the brain drain from those communities, writes Sarah Jacknife. PHOTO BY ARCOSS /Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Calgary Herald: The term “brain drain” refers to the effects of government policies, taxes or world events that cause highly skilled workers to leave their homes (cities, provinces or countries) and relocate elsewhere in search of work. While this global phenomenon is well studied and understood, it is also appropriate to apply this term to Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

With most Indigenous communities located in remote and rural areas, there is limited access to job opportunities, and the available jobs do not match the demand. As a result, skilled workers are forced to move to urban areas in pursuit of employment, resulting in a brain drain.

As highly skilled members leave their communities, the economy grows less, which results in rising poverty rates, a growing detachment from culture and the land, and a lack of motivation for Indigenous entrepreneurs to launch businesses in their communities. All of these outcomes are indicators of a functioning colonial system.

Historically, the government’s grand strategy was to assimilate Indigenous People into Canada and entice them to leave their communities by excluding economic and employment opportunities.

The Peasant Farmer Policy, which operated between 1889 and 1897, placed restrictions on what First Nation farmers could cultivate and sell and the equipment they could use. Due to this damaging legislation, First Nation farmers were at a competitive disadvantage and were unable to compete. Members were therefore faced with the difficult choice of staying in their community and economically struggling or moving to seek other work.

Similarly, many members of Métis settlements in northern Alberta worked seasonally as labourers in sugar beet farms near Lethbridge in the mid to late 20th century because there were no job opportunities in their communities. For nearly three decades, many Métis families were separated for several months as men from the community were forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to earn a temporary income while budgeting for long cold Alberta winters.

While policies like the Peasant Farmer Policy no longer exist, the brain drain is still a pressing issue. With Indigenous People being the fastest-growing demographic in Canada, this pressing issue will only worsen if there is no swift action.

As governments, academics and employers have turned their attention toward this national issue, they should pay special attention to the digital divide.

recent study by RBC noted only 24 per cent of Indigenous households in Indigenous communities have access to high-speed internet, creating significant digital inequities. The divide was exacerbated during the pandemic as the country shifted to the online world to communicate, work and access education. Due to the lack of connectivity infrastructure in their communities, many Indigenous communities were left disconnected and unable to participate in the online world.

As the digital divide closes, there will be greater opportunities for Indigenous workers to stay in their communities, which will help prevent the brain drain, boost economic growth and preserve cultural connections.

Indigenous small to medium businesses are rapidly growing, but limited connectivity, access to talent and resources can deter businesses. As communities access reliable connectivity, it will encourage more Indigenous entrepreneurs to start or grow businesses. The ripple effects of more Indigenous businesses can increase employment opportunities in communities, generate wealth, and boost Indigenous companies’ competitiveness.

Indigenous People who move to urban areas can struggle to find a community, and when they try to return home, they can feel disconnected from their family and community members. This experience of yo-yo-ing between both worlds can lead to feelings of not belonging and loneliness.

Once communities receive high-speed internet access and Indigenous employees start to work from their communities, it opens the door for them to become more engaged. For example, they could participate in more cultural activities, ceremonies and harvesting. It could also contribute to less burnout and limit the isolation Indigenous employees experience.

A common concern for employers is sourcing Indigenous talent. With the digital divide being addressed, it will increase the talent pool as Indigenous candidates can still live in their community and access employment across Canada. Furthermore, having Indigenous workers from the community working in different industries will highlight to younger generations diverse career pathways, which could break down future employment barriers.

It’s time to stop the brain drain within Indigenous communities. Indigenous skilled workers should be able to stay in their communities and access the same resources most Canadian workers have, which is the ability to log on to their devices and access the internet that most Canadians take for granted.

Sarah Jacknife is a proud member of Elizabeth Métis Settlement located in northeastern Alberta and currently works at Rogers Communications Inc. as a senior manager of Indigenous community engagement.